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Researching the mental health of marginalised communities

23 October 2020
Researcher Spotlight: Dr Marlee Bower
We speak to Dr Marlee Bower about her research on the relationships between the built environment, loneliness, and mental health. She also tells us about a new project she’s leading known as the Alone Together Study which is measuring the impacts of COVID-19 on Australians’ mental wellbeing.
Dr Marlee Bower

Dr Marlee Bower

What is your background and how did you come to join the Matilda Centre?

I started my research career doing my PhD at Western Sydney University exploring how loneliness is experienced amongst people experiencing homelessness. From my experience working as a Research Assistant on homelessness-related projects, I became really interested in the way that people’s relationships changed whilst homeless, which sometimes negatively influenced their mental health and even their ability to exit homelessness. My PhD allowed me to interview and survey 150 people in Sydney who were currently or previously homeless. It was a really special experience because I got to learn a lot from my really generous participants.

Eventually when my PhD Scholarship funding ran out I went to work in government research. First, I worked in prison inspection at the NSW Inspector of Custodial Services and then in Homelessness Strategy (Department of Communities and Justice). I really loved these roles because I got to meet a lot of interesting people and see how academic research can influence policy and in fact change people’s lives. When I saw my current job advertised at the Matilda Centre, investigating psychological therapeutic programs delivered in NSW correctional centres, I knew it was a perfect next job and combination of my interest areas.

Can you tell us about your main area of research and the projects you have been involved with?

I have been lucky enough to be part of multiple research areas whilst at the Matilda Centre. My main project is a Process Evaluation of the EQUIPS suite of offender treatment programs, delivered by Corrective Services NSW (CSNSW) to people under supervision in custody and in the community. I’m working on this with Dr Emma Barrett. This is an important project, because the EQUIPS programs are one of the main rehabilitative strategies run by CSNSW, so it is crucial that the programs are run well.

I’m also involved in other exciting work at the Matilda Centre. I convene the Network for Research in the Built Environment and Mental Health, which is an exciting collaboration with Urban Planning, Health and Mental Health academics and practitioners to understand the impact that the environment has on our wellbeing and mental health. I think that the link between the built environment and mental health became particularly clear during COVID-19 and lockdown this year. Being in a lockdown situation can really amplify and shine a spotlight on problems with your housing that can negatively impact your mental health. At the moment we are working on a review of the relationship between the built environment and loneliness.

I am also leading the Alone Together study, a longitudinal survey looking at the impact that COVID-19 has had, and will continue to have, on Australians’ wellbeing. It investigates how aspects of participants’ current situation, such as their employment, housing and social networks, impacts their wellbeing. Overall, this study seeks to understand how we can support Australians to recover from the effects of COVID-19 and better protect and support our community in any similar later crises.  We already have around 1700 respondents Australia-wide!

What are you looking forward to achieving in the next 12 months?

I’m really excited about my upcoming role at the Centre as Academic Lead of the world-first COVID-19 Mental Health Response Independent Think Tank, which will be chaired by the Matilda Centre Director, Professor Maree Teesson. My work in government research and policy made me all too aware that high-quality research is very slowly – if ever – translated into policy. My hope is that we can build up the Think Tank to provide a unified and trustworthy platform to advocate for translation of Australian mental health research into evidence-based policy.  I’m also excited because the Alone Together study will be one of the sources of data that will drive the Think Tank.

What do you like most about working at the Matilda Centre – how is it different to other places you’ve worked?

The thing that I LOVE about working at the Matilda Centre is the strong sense of community here. It is a truly unique social environment where each member of staff, no matter what their level, is encouraged to have their voice and opinion heard. There’s also a thriving social events calendar thanks to the Matilda Centre Social Committee!

As an academic here I love the sense of boundless opportunity that the Matilda Centre provides. New ideas and creativity in the research process are encouraged and we are supported to apply for work and grants in our interest areas. This was how I was able to create the Network for Research in Built Environment and Mental Health and the Matilda Centre Early Career Research Crime Research Group (with Siobhan Lawler)! These opportunities helped me to reach out to other researchers and practitioners in different fields and institutions, collaborate and learn from each other. I think collaboration is really the key to learning more about an area and doing the best research possible.

If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?

This is a great question, but also a tough one! When I was 18 years old I was studying Psychology here at Sydney University after stumbling across a psych-related book in my high school library. I had no idea what kind of career I could/would end up with … I definitely did not have a 10-year plan! When I finished my Honours year I considered studying something different, because I found Psychology a bit ‘general’.

As I was pondering what to do next, I saw a Research Assistant role with Dr Elizabeth Conroy at Western Sydney University doing work with people experiencing homelessness. The role helped me re-develop a passion for psychology and see how, when done well, mental health research can have real benefits on the lives of marginalised groups.

I would tell my 18-year-old self that if you keep on doing work that interests you, with people that inspire and motivate you to learn and grow, you will always end up doing work that you enjoy and find meaningful.