Professor Ella Arensman, National Suicide Research Foundation & School of Public Health
Ella Arensman, Research Professor and Chief Scientist
College: Medicine & Health
School: Public Health
Research Interests: Suicide, self-harm & related mental health & social issues
What first attracted you to your academic discipline?
In the years prior to deciding to study Clinical Psychology at the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, I had a growing interest in mental health, inequality and human rights, and I became particularly interested in finding out how to reduce stigma associated with mental health and to improve treatment and care for people with mental health problems. Combined with my investigative nature, this formed the basis for my research career in epidemiological and clinical research in the mental health area. As a second year student, I was invited to join an interactive discussion forum with patients and students at Leiden University Hospital, led by Professor Groen, who was a leading figure in research into psychosomatic medicine (first peer review publication in 1956), and who was still lecturing until he died at the age of 85. For me as a young student, this was a most fascinating experience.
How were you drawn to your current research interests?
About 30 years ago, when I was given the opportunity during an internship at Leiden University to conduct research interviews with people who had presented to hospital emergency departments following self-harm, I was struck by the challenges that many of them were facing in the contact with health and mental health services, such as lack of understanding and respect, including some of them being discriminated from other patients, who were referred for physical health reasons. As part of my MSc in Clinical Psychology, I subsequently conducted further in-depth research among women who engaged in repeated self-cutting and those with intentional drug overdose, which resulted in my master's thesis. This formed the basis for my PhD research, during which I was able to collaborate with researchers in a WHO/EU consortium, which was both a very stimulating and rewarding experience.
What professional achievements do you consider particularly rewarding?
I consider it very rewarding to train, supervise and guide young researchers, which has been a consistently positive experience over the past decades. In addition, I have always experienced the added value of collaborating with colleagues in research consortia nationally and internationally, since the time when I was involved in the first research consortium in 1990.
It has been very rewarding to establish improvements in suicide and self-harm prevention policy, service capacity and quality for people at risk of self-harm and suicide in Ireland based on persistent lobbying and using research evidence.
In my work with the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) and WHO, it has been very rewarding to engage with government representatives and to train future trainers in implementing training programmes in surveillance, awareness and skills relating to self-harm and suicide, which subsequently have achieved national roll-out.
Have you had professional role models? What impact did they have on you?
It has always been very inspiring and encouraging to work with colleagues in different settings and internationally, and I've had access to great mentors over the years. However, I think it is important to develop your own vision, yet remain open to keep updating this over time.
What aspects of your work do you find most rewarding?
I would consider most of my work rewarding, including training, guiding and encouraging students and young researchers. The collaboration and exchange with researchers in different disciplines and different countries can be very energising and inspiring. I consider it very rewarding to see specific impacts of research evidence in terms of improving intervention and prevention programmes for suicides, self-harm and related mental health and social issues.
I very much enjoy lecturing, training and writing, but have to 'protect writing time'. Taking on new challenges, in particular developing new research consortia along with research innovation and new research grant applications can be very fascinating and rewarding, such as establishing collaborative links between European and low- and middle-income countries.
Any details you wish to share about how being female has impacted upon your career (positively or negatively)?
Even though during the eighties and nineties I have faced challenges and dilemmas in the work setting in situations where I know that my research and views were perceived differently than if I were a man, it has not caused me to change my research direction or career. In addition, in some of my international work in countries where there is an extreme gender imbalance, it has at times been difficult to complete the work I was commissioned to undertake. However, when eventually I can complete the work via alternative ways, it's another step in the right direction and every step counts!
In fulfilling multiple roles, including an international position, I wouldn't have been able to do this without the support of my partner, and this has been very consistent since my first position as research assistant in 1987.
Academic careers present specific challenges in achieving balance, whether between research, teaching and administration, or in work/life balance. What advice might you give a student/younger colleague/your 18-year old self?
Finding an optimal balance between the many tasks related to an academic position and between work and life, may be quite a long journey, and is very individually determined. I would consider it important for students and young researchers to be guided by their interest in and affinity with certain topics and areas of research. Being motivated and inspired to work in a certain research area makes it easier to overcome any challenges, such as reduced resources, dealing with competitive funding programmes, and ongoing changes at policy level. If you believe in the integrity of the research conducted by you and your colleagues, it will be possible to make a difference.