They’re talking about you. Behind your back and behind closed doors, hosts of mental health researchers are relentlessly probing the student psyche.

This is an uncomfortable revelation for the typical U of T student, sheltered in the anonymity of giant classes and identified only by a nine-digit branding. But for researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), it is a very serious business. At their regular “Brown Bag Discussion Groups,” they talk about their trade and provide a rare opportunity for outsiders to catch a glimpse of their vast and rarely public research network.

But CAMH researchers Dr. Nazila Khanlou and Dr. Elizabeth Peter unveiled a more democratic model for medical research at an appropriately public seminar last Thursday. They advocate a new methodology, called Participatory Action Research (PAR), which rails against the extreme professional detachment of researchers who cloister themselves in ivory towers and relegate their subjects to passive objects of scrutiny. In contrast, PAR empowers the subjects of mental health studies with an active role in the research process.

PAR’s objective to increase the role of participants in research carries with it several ethical complications. Techniques in choosing study participants become a crucial issue. A single study can only focus on a relatively small group of people who are usually taken to be representative of an entire social or cultural community. Since, in PAR, such participants are able to directly influence the course of research, it is essential that they represent the goals and interests of their community at large. The challenge then becomes one of obtaining informed consent for a study from an entire community, and not merely from select interest groups within it.

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