by Dr Johanna Spiers
Senior Research Associate
Centre for Academic Primary Care
I am a qualitative health psychologist. That’s who I’ve been for about eight years.
However, before I even knew what that term meant, I was several other things: a writer, a performer, a poet. I am drawn to words, and to the stories that they form. This is why I am passionate about qualitative research. I also love performance, and believe it is a fantastic mechanism for powerfully communicating important messages about humanity.
On my arrival at the University of Bristol, I was therefore thrilled to learn that the project I would be working on with Principal Investigator Ruth Riley included a collaboration with a performance artist, who would be communicating our findings about GPs’ mental health to an audience. This performance was to happen as part of the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute’s (EBI) Feel It Festival. An impressive 54 artists applied for the commissioned post. Six of these artists were auditioned, and Ruth gave me a very glowing report of Viv Gordon, the one who had been chosen to represent us.
When I first met Viv in a café on Whiteladies Road in Bristol, I could immediately see why Ruth was sold on her. Viv is a dance artist, mental health campaigner and, although she would deny it, a poet. As soon as the three of us started talking about the issues the research was raising (the back-breaking pressures on GPs, their isolation, the astounding levels of stigma surrounding mental health within the medical profession), it became clear that we all held passionate and aligning beliefs on the topic. Viv has lived experience of what she calls a ‘high functioning breakdown’, and all her work is about mental health. This gives her an insight and dedication to the topic that is unique.
I left that first meeting with a promise to send Viv a selection of our anonymised interview transcripts and a great sense of optimism about what was to follow. I was not disappointed.
At our next meeting, three months later, Viv showed us the beginnings of the piece which was to become Pre Scribed (a life written for me). She had spent that time studying 15 of our 47 transcripts of interviews with distressed GPs and asking questions of the academic GPs in our research team as well as starting her own process as a dance artist, rehearsing a combination of movement, words and sound.
Ruth and I next met with Viv a month later, when she shared a much more polished work in progress with us. This was a very surreal experience for me; sitting in a small theatre space in the early afternoon with all the lights on, next to my work colleagues, watching the research I had been putting my heart, soul and sweat into for nine months take shape and grow into a moving, exciting and often funny piece of art. I had to pretend I wasn’t moved to tears; I’m not sure I got away with it.
The finished performance was performed to sell-out audiences at Circomedia in Bristol. The show itself is a triumph, combining movement, monologues and music to tell the story of a GP partner who is breaking under the increasing pressures of patients, demands and family life.
It was a privilege to see our work communicated in this way. The piece highlights that GPs are not invulnerable but human and feel the pressures and strains of their demanding work life. Many GPs in the audience stayed for the Question & Answer session after the performance and spoke eloquently about how the piece resonated for them and how important it is to ensure it is performed again, perhaps for an audience of politicians.
Conducting the interviews for the research was a moving experience for me. I was shocked by the levels of distress the participants shared with me, and humbled by their continued passion and love for general practice. Viv has translated their stories into a beautiful and accessible performance of which I feel proud to have been a part.
There is a strong sense of kinship and team spirit between Ruth, Viv and I following this experience. We have plans to take the piece further afield and hope that it can continue opening people’s eyes to pressures of working in general practice and resonating with those working on the frontline in that crisis.
The research to which this post relates is funded by the NIHR School for Primary Care Research.
The following CAPC blog post is about another event that was part of the Feel It Festival:
A Painful Silence: bringing domestic violence into conversation