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A conference call

Frank Reilly first attended an international conference in 2013. Here, he explains why they are ideal for sharing ideas.

Frank Reilly first attended an international conference in 2013. Here, he explains why they are ideal for sharing ideas.

I attended my first international conference three years ago. I had been an NHS manager for 15 years, but for the previous two years I had been redeployed to various tedious administrative roles – partly, I suspect, to ‘encourage’ me to move on. As a result, my skills had been degraded and I was finding it difficult to move on to other jobs. With nothing to lose, I approached my manager and convinced them to second me to the University of Strathclyde to develop some research skills and increase my profile, hoping I could then source another job. I had no ambitions to be a ‘real’ researcher, never mind an academic. Then came a European conference on mental health in 2013.

The conference developed from an initial plan to provide an opportunity for nurses across Europe to share ideas and research. But it has become a multidisciplinary forum to meet and network with people from across the globe.

At the conference in Turku, Finland, I arrived a little bedraggled, clutching a poster that outlined the sum of my efforts from the previous year. I was exploring what it might mean to ‘co-produce’ with patients in a highly secure forensic setting and, like anyone who has dipped their toe into the maelstrom of definitions, I was more confused than ever. And here I was, about to expose my ignorance to an international audience.

I hadn’t counted on the friendliness of the Finnish organisers and the overall optimism engendered by like-minded mental health workers. That conference was a watershed for me: speaking to fellow poster presenters gave me the confidence to talk about my work and begin to make friends with people from Finland, Switzerland, Canada, England and Ireland. It also helped me talk about my ideas with others who were used to asking probing questions to learn more, rather than dismissing new ideas out of hand.

It’s good to talk

On my return, I had a teleconference with senior personnel in Calgary, Canada. I wrote an article for Mental Health Practice on paradigms, and I made contact with the forensic mental health system in Ireland. Often our NHS celebration events, though necessary, grate with me as they remind me of artificial private sector ‘conventions’. But what was so different about these connections was that all forms of seniority and ‘importance’ were suspended. People shared ideas, including those that were yet to be developed, without fear of being dismissed. And I was encouraged by Lauri Kuosmanen and Heikki Ellila – now my good Finnish friends – to further develop my own ideas.

I now had the confidence – we call it being gallus in the west of Scotland – to ask a stupid question to see what becomes of it. So I did. What if I did an MPhil? Why couldn’t this be a PhD? If we can isolate co-productive skills in these high secure settings, can we train people to be co-productive more often? And how would we manage the risks?

As a manager, I was responsible for a small part of the NHS. What I was thinking was that ideas I had shared with others were perhaps becoming, dare I say it, important.

When I returned home I was redeployed again, but this time to a research post to take advantage of my new skills. Now I had the confidence to call on the expertise and opinion of world-renowned researchers to help me move my ideas forward. When I came across an idea about thinking and risk, I emailed Professor Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate, for his opinion: little me, emailing a star of behavioural economics and psychology. He replied with some real words of wisdom, cautioning that he was ‘out of my depth here’. I still don’t feel it, but somehow, since this journey began in Turku, I have morphed from a bored apparatchik into an expert.

The journey that started in Turku led me back to the European Conference on Mental Health in Riga 2015, where I met old friends and made new contacts. Those contacts have led to a potential international collaboration on forensic mental health nursing competencies, provided me with a further area to expand my research into, and a request from the editor of this journal to put my experience on paper.

So what have international conferences ever done for us? They let us share ideas with open-minded people who help us refine them; they develop international co-operation in ways you can never imagine happening without them; and they help us remember that this little island is not alone, and it should look outwards to help, and learn from, our neighbours.

About the author

Frank Reilly is honorary research fellow in the School of Social Work & Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

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