Soothing public minds

Ella Rhodes reports on a British Psychological Society Public Engagement and Media Award for Dr Stella Chan (University of Edinburgh).

10 January 2018

A clinical psychologist who has called on the public to create a collection of soothing images for use in psychotherapy and research has been awarded this year’s British Psychological Society Public Engagement and Media Award. Dr Stella Chan (University of Edinburgh), the founder of Project Soothe, has been actively bringing ‘citizen science’ and psychology into the public eye, opening conversations she never expected.

Chan explained how Project Soothe came to be. Initially inspired by her fireman and freelance-photographer father, she later had a realisation during training as a clinical psychologist that while many therapies use mental imagery, some people cannot produce such images. Finally, on a Sunday morning reading Physics World, big, impressive citizen science projects came to her mind. ‘In astronomy there’s one called Galaxy Zoo… while traditionally you’d need a lot of fast computers and a lot of scientists to identify galaxies, astronomers instead recruited amateur scientists, basically geeks in the community, who really liked looking at stars anyway, and gave them a bit of basic training. Then these trained citizen scientists each take a bit of the data and analyse it and put it together. They’ve already published something like 50 papers on that. I thought there’s no reason we can’t do that in psychology. I came back to the idea of creating this bank of images to help people self-soothe and bring about a sense of self-compassion.’

Chan felt it important to avoid prescribing what soothing should mean to people: ‘I thought if we go out and create these images it isn’t representative of the population. With the help of some seed funding from the university we launched phase one, designing the website and asking people to send in any images they found soothing. We were deliberately vague at the time, we wanted them to use their imaginations to think about what soothing means – which is something we’re not clear about theoretically.’

Since setting up Project Soothe, which is now funded by the British Academy, the team has received more than 700 photos from 21 countries. Chan  was amazed by the consistency of the themes seen across the images. ‘Five themes keep coming up – natural landscapes, water features, sky, trees and flowers, and animals.’

Along with her colleagues and students Chan has also carried out numerous research projects using the images. One asked participants to view a randomly selected group of 25 of the images and measured their mood before and after. ‘We found people’s mood significantly improved from before to after. It’s a very robust effect we see, and we’ve replicated it in a smaller, more well-controlled study. We also found that whether people benefited from these images was not related to their level of depression. Even though some people may feel low and down, it doesn’t stop them from getting the mood benefit of the images. That was very good to see.’

In a further study teenage participants in Belize were randomly allocated to either view and rate 25 of the images, or imagine soothing images. Those who saw the real images had a significantly better mood improvement than those in the mental imagery group. The team has also carried out a qualitative study asking people to define soothing and to describe the last time they felt soothed. Here she found an interesting contradiction. ‘We found if you ask people an abstract question like what is soothing, you get a very different answer than if you ask someone to recall a memory from when they last felt soothed and describe the experience. For example, when you ask people what is soothing they don’t really talk about nature, but connectedness with nature really came up when they described their experiences of soothing.’

This recurring theme of nature in people’s experiences and images of soothing led Chan to hold an exhibition of the images at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. ‘We started talking to the Royal Botanic Garden, which is an amazing place. We introduced the project to them and they were really interested, they were incredible partners. The exhibition had interactive activities including voting for the most soothing images and a survey. We estimate about 2000 people visited over a month, and 400 filled in our survey – it was very internationally rich, as many were tourists. We took data from the qualitative study about people’s narratives of soothing and commissioned a poem from the Edinburgh Makar – the city poet – he looked at the results of that study and transformed it into a poem and paired it with one of the images.’

Many people who visited the exhibition spoke openly to Chan and her colleagues about their own mental health problems. ‘When we put up the exhibition we didn’t emphasise it as a mental health project… when you’re reaching out to the public it’s more about general wellbeing of people. But nonetheless people with mental health difficulties found it really resonated with them. That was one thing that made me realise that while it wasn’t the original design of the study, maybe some of the value of Project Soothe is that it opens up conversations.’

The exhibition was also taken to a secondary school in Edinburgh, and it may tour more schools in the area. Some of the Project Soothe images are also set to be used in an NHS Film Library project that is working with artists to create moving images for use with patients in hospitals. Chan has also held a panel discussion about adolescent mental health, another area of expertise, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Midlothian Science Festival. ‘One wonderful thing about public engagement, and something that’s nerve-wracking for a lot of researchers, is that once you put your research in the public domain you have no control over how people use it. You really need to let go and trust that people will use it in a way they will benefit from.’

Public engagement, Chan said, requires a great deal of heart and a genuine interest in connecting with people and inspiring them. ‘In traditional research you can be logical and pragmatic and produce a good piece of research. But for public engagement the main thing is it’s not about what you do but about whether you mean to genuinely connect with people. And this connection can only happen if you want to connect. It’s not something you can learn as a skill, it doesn’t work like that… the public engage with you because they can feel your enthusiasm. The public engagement events that I think are successful are those that show you want to come out and make a difference. It’s that enthusiasm that attracts people.’

While public engagement is traditionally done after research has already been published, Chan said she hopes to continue involving the public: ‘If you genuinely want to do that, you involve them right from the start, you consult them, you see what kind of research they want to see done and what they see as valuable. I think in the new year my goal is trying to integrate that in different stages of research, rather than at a later point.’

Over the coming year Chan said the team is hoping to dig deeper into preliminary data on the longer-term benefit of the Project Soothe images. ‘I want to step up the public engagement as well, because I want to consult the public on how they’d like to see these images being transformed into a more structured way of treatment or intervention. My work has two sides now – one is Project Soothe and the other is adolescent depression. This year we’re launching a new study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, looking at the underlying mechanisms, risks and resilience in adolescents, to see what can predict and explain why some young people get depressed and some not and why some who do get depressed recover and some don’t.’

Working alongside the Royal Botanic Garden, Chan said, had been a particular highlight. ‘Academics need to step out and work with other people… I can’t emphasise enough how good the Royal Botanic Garden has been, both their understanding of the project and their creativity around it. Particularly Dr Roger Hyam who is like a wizard, not only is he a botanic expert but somehow a DIY expert. When it’s a small-budget project you don’t have many resources… the keyboard we used in the exhibition was made by Roger from an Ikea chopping board! It warmed my heart to do a project where I know every detail of it. In academia we sometimes get too competitive about big grants and are judged on them, but a lot of meaningful work doesn’t need a lot of money. We need to get back to that basic level of understanding that it’s not about money, it’s about what you want to achieve. It’s not about how big the grant is but how big your heart is.’
Finally, Chan said she was overjoyed to win the Public Engagement and Media Award. ‘I was jumping up and down and trying to find someone to hug! I am so grateful for the support of many colleagues including the Project Soothe team, the STRADL team, as well as funders British Academy, Wellcome Trust and the University of Edinburgh and its press office.

Traditionally you do come across academics who may be snobbish about public engagement and who think it isn’t as important or it’s an add-on. Nonetheless I did it not because I think it’ll lead to a great career – I did it because I really wanted to do it, and to see that recognised is a real boost. I’m really glad the BPS has that shared value that public engagement is an important area of our work and it’s worth encouraging people do more.’ 

- Find out more about the Society’s Public Engagement and Media Award.