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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Martyn Pickersgill

14 Dec, 2015

Martyn PickersgillDr Martyn Pickersgill is a Wellcome Trust Reader in Social Studies of Biomedicine at the University of Edinburgh. His work looks at the social, legal and ethical dimensions of biomedicine and health professions. Martyn is currently trying to understand our changing attitudes to mental health and how this affects clinical understanding and approaches to mental health, and the provision and type of care available to patients…

What are you working on?

I’m a social scientist examining changing understandings of mental ill-health within the laboratory, the clinic, and beyond.

For a long time now, something called the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) has been commonly used to diagnose people with psychiatric disorders for research purposes and in health-care settings. Yet, this is increasingly being called into question – including by major funders, like the US National Institute of Mental Health.

My work is trying to understand this shift, and its implications for laboratory work, clinical practice, and mental health law.

What does your average day involve?

Like most academics, it varies hugely! At the moment, I’ve been travelling about a lot, conducting interviews in the US with opinion-leaders in psychiatry. Other times, I’m often to be found in Edinburgh, analyzing data, writing, reviewing grants and papers, or supervising and teaching students.

Why is your work important?

DSM-5_3DThe ways in which mental ill-health is understood have major effects on how research progresses, health systems are funded, clinical practice is undertaken, and patients are treated. In the latter case this is most obviously in terms of therapies prescribed, but also in regards to how people are ‘treated’ by society – by the state, the courts, health professionals, employers, friends and family, and so on.

Any move to shake things up in psychiatry – like powerful institutions and individuals questioning the use of the DSM, for instance – demands close sociological attention, in order to try and work out what some of the social, ethical and legal implications of such shifts might be (and how we might respond to these).

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

I want to present a more detailed picture of the ethical and legal challenges that emerge through both new and established laboratory and clinical practices, and use this to help to find better ways of responding to them to improve healthcare strategy, design and delivery.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

This project evolves from my previous Wellcome Trust Fellowship, which was concerned with access to psychological therapy, as well as linking back to my PhD (on the evolution of diagnostic criteria for personality disorders). More generally, I’ve been studying the societal context of mental health and biomedical research for over a decade now, and in particular the social and ethical dimensions of innovation in these areas.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

Over the last year or so it’s been, ‘Should we get rid of the DSM?’

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

Probably, ‘Should we get rid of the DSM?’!

At this point in my research, I’m trying to do interpretative, sociological work about why and how the DSM has come to be seen as problematic, and why this question is being asked right now in so many contexts (and often by individuals who would previously have been assumed to be in favour of the manual).

I’m definitely not at a point where I could give a short, clear answer to what is almost always a somewhat loaded question.

How has Wellcome funding helped your research?

In so many ways!

Beyond the important matter of resources, Wellcome also has a huge array of experts on staff who can advise grant-holders around issues like how best to engage different publics in research design and implementation. As a major biomedical funder, they also have insights into both the bio-scientific and the international policy context of the social science questions I grapple with.

What keeps you awake at night?

Over recent years I’ve become more involved with university committee work around equality and diversity. When I’m lying awake with jetlag from the interviews I’ve been doing in the States, I’ve recently been thinking about how we can best make structural changes and small, local interventions that will make university work fairer and more enjoyable for those participating in it.

I’ve been particularly inspired by the dedication of senior colleagues at Edinburgh like Cathy Abbott, Karen Bateson and Sarah Cunningham-Burley towards activities such as Athena SWAN – as well, of course, as the energy and drive of very many early-career researchers.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I love my job! That probably shouldn’t be a surprise, but at a time when many academics are experiencing a whole range of demands and competing pressures, I feel extremely lucky to be so well-supported by both the Trust and the University of Edinburgh.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

‘Be careful who you ask for advice’!

What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?

eurovisionlogoI can’t imagine that presenting Eurovision would be anything other than marvelous fun!


You can find out more about Dr Martyn Pickersgill on the University of Edinburgh website and follow him on Twitter. You might also be interested to read his papers: How personality became treatable: The mutual constitution of clinical knowledge and mental health law and Debating DSM-5: diagnosis and the sociology of critique.

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