On 22nd February 2021, Scotland-based researchers from health sciences, social sciences, and multidisciplinary backgrounds met online to discuss health challenges in the Arctic region, and how to enhance collaboration between Scottish higher education institutions and research organisations in Scotland-Arctic research.
This event was the first event in a network series titled “Scotland’s Role and Contribution in a Changing Arctic Environment” supported by the Scottish Government through the Nordic and Arctic Unit Directorate for External Affairs. These network events intend to lay the foundation for consolidating Scottish expertise on Arctic matters and build an interdisciplinary network for more consistent involvement of Scottish institutions in Arctic research and international forums.
This event featured a great line-up of speakers to showcase some interesting Scotland-Arctic research on mental and physical health and proceeded to an open discussion with attendees to explore how we might advance Scotland-Arctic research. A recording of the event is available online – click here. If you attended the session, or watched the recording, and wanted to contribute further thoughts and join a dedicated Scotland-Arctic mailing list, you can by filling out this survey – click here. There will also be two consolidation events to reflect on this network series and start the initial steps towards a Scotland-wide Arctic research network on the 15th (click here) and 17th March (click here).
Below is a summary of key remarks and contributions.
Professor Tahseen Jafry, Director of the Centre for Climate Justice at Glasgow Caledonian University, and Lead of the UArctic Thematic Network on Climate Justice, opened the event as Chair by outlining the need to bring people-centred approach to research on health and resilience, specifically the implications of environmental and climate-related changes for the lives, wellbeing and resilience of people in Scotland and the Arctic. Scotland has a wealth of expertise, albeit fragmented, but through these events we can start to form a roadmap to consolidating expertise and highlight wellbeing and health research by Scotland-based researchers, as well as develop better educational and research links to understand the important social contexts and practical aspects of health research in the Arctic.
Scott Graham, Lecturer in Sports Medicine at Edinburgh Napier University and Exercise Physiologist with the Polar Academy, opens by saying people can build resilience, physically and mentally, through the use of the Arctic as a vehicle and a mechanism. Scott Graham’s work resolves around preparing people for ‘Ice Ultras’ in the Yukon territories in Northern Canada. However, the Arctic is fragile and there is concern expeditions will not be able to cross the region due to melting caused by climate change. That said, this research monitored motivation, mood, sleep cycles and injury rates and found resilience, toughness and the ability to endure is core and intrinsic to success in endurance sport in extremities. This research also informed psychological skills training and psychological challenges and instruments of assessment to determine how British and US elite military units would perform in the Arctic. Scott also spoke of the work of the Polar Academy which provides young people, who are disengaged and disenfranchised, to with an opportunity to further themselves in an Arctic Expedition to gain life skills and experience that challenged themselves and in effect to build resilience.
Martin Malcolm, Head of Public Health Intelligence & Information Services at NHS Western Isles and project partner in NPA-funded ‘ChatPal’ project, explored the shared challenges of remote areas of Scotland and the Arctic in addressing mental health and the potential for collaborative innovative approaches. Martin Malcolm explained that Scotland shares several challenges with Arctic countries in terms of accessing mental health support for remote and rural communities. ChatPal is a project that seeks to harness technology to overcomes these challenges to create a multi-lingual chatbot service across Scotland-Arctic regions that offers accessible mental wellbeing support. The key to success of the ChatPal project is a strong focus on co-creation of the chatbot service across stakeholders in Western Isles, Scotland, N.Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Ireland. ChatPal uses chatbots to provide 24/7 support, the service is anonymous and non-human so there is no stigma or judgement, as well as includes practical tools and resource links, positive mental wellbeing content and measurement of impacts e.g. via mood logs, MWB scales. The prototype released via Google Store during the coronavirus pandemic showed good early insights and there are ‘User trials’ planned for summer of 2021
Professor Antony Morgan, Dean of GCU London and Professor in Public Health, Glasgow Caledonian University, spoke of the need to invest in the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents for their growth and development and, in doing so, secure a range of positive health related outcomes in the future. Professor Morgan explained that health policy to support child growth and adolescent wellbeing often focuses on addressing health problems. It is often referred to as the deficit approach to addressing health and wellbeing. Salutogenesis allows us think about how health can be created, and the conditions required to help young people thrive. There should be a set of values to encourages young people to do well for themselves, but also for others. There are a range of skills and competences that young people require to do well. Their ability to participate in a range of formal and informal networks for the common good is a core competence that provides a cornerstone for maintaining well-being even when faced with difficult circumstances. Research is vital to understand health and wellbeing and gain insights into how young people live: HBSC Survey collects information on young people’s health every 4 years and involves 50 countries with 400 childcare experts. Many Arctic states that are involved in this study such as Iceland, Greenland, the Scandinavian countries and Canada.
Professor Arja Rautio, Member of the UArctic Thematic Network on Health and Wellbeing in the Arctic, University of Oulu, provided an overview of the research and education activities of the thematic network of health and wellbeing in the Arctic, established in 2005, and the mission for a safe and good quality of life in the Arctic. Professor Rautio explained the Arctic populations are very different and are not very similar to each other; for example, half of the Arctic is Russia and two thirds of the people out of the 7 million people in the Arctic are living in Russia. There are, therefore, huge health and wellbeing disparities in the different part of the Arctic regions and territories. There are also differences in health and different access to health care amongst people living in the same region and between urban and rural areas. There is different access to health care between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. As such, this field is large and complex and collaboration with other networks is important. The leading principle of the network is a holistic approach (human, environment and animals), community-based research, ethics, collaboration, and circumpolarity.
Numerous Scottish higher education institutions and research organisations were represented in the meeting; University of Stirling, Strathclyde University, University of Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian University, University of the Highlands and Islands, Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), University of Aberdeen, and Edinburgh Napier University. We were also joined by researchers from various UArctic affiliated institutions and interested members of the public and civil society.
Attendees discussed opportunities and barriers to Scotland-Arctic research, the potential benefit of this research to people in Scotland and the Arctic, and strengths and weaknesses of Scottish research in the Arctic. Below is a summary of responses:
Opportunities and strengths
- The coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on health inequalities and raised an open question about how people can build resilience.
- There is a mental health impact of the coronavirus on young people, particularly school children unable to attend school but through digital engagement, there is an opportunity to measure and resolve.
- The lived experience of mental health challenges, captured digitally, offer an opportunity for rich data collection and creation of learning exchanges.
- Coronavirus-related research has become the new normal on the health research agenda and has spurred new thinking on alternatives to delivering health solutions.
- This spur towards alternatives has also highlighted existing challenges of remoteness and access in the provision of health solutions.
- The restrictions on travel has highlighted the importance of participatory research approaches to conducting health research and its benefit to the quality of research, and this has led to a push to examining the impacts of this pandemic on Indigenous and rural communities in the Artic.
- While there will be those unable to engage online, an opportunity of online engagement is the ability to get individuals from different groups and sectors more easily than physical meetings.
- The term resilience can have different meanings for different groups within specific environments so there is an opportunity to further research and map to what resilience means in specific environments and experiences.
- There is often confusion surrounding terms of multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. Transdisciplinary is when you take interdisciplinarity and you add in the external stakeholders i.e. involving major stakeholders, business, government, indigenous groups, and local heritage groups. More can be done to create spaces to have these conversations to formulate our research questions and see how the different perspectives influence
- Collaboration between different disciplines can bring new lens to the same issue, but this also requires time to properly explore a topic and reach a point where consortium use the same academic language. The UArctic is a platform for long-term collaboration, building trust between institutions and exploring new research areas. Scotland could learn from this model.
- There are some common aspects of mental health around connectedness, hope and optimism, a sense of identity, a sense of meaning, and a sense of empowerment. Tools which embrace bilingualism, like the ChatPal deploying in Gaelic, offers a consoling anchor during times of adversity.
Barriers and weaknesses
- The coronavirus pandemic has stopped expeditions due to health guidance and travel restrictions, but there is also the ethical element of potentially spreading the virus to small communities in the Arctic.
- Restrictions on travel have disrupted the ability to conduct research with communities.
- Stakeholder workshops focus groups and community outreach have been forced online, and it must be acknowledged that there are potentially sections of the community not able to engage online.
- Linking with communities can be an issue of resources, but there is anxiety among Scottish institutions at the moment as much of this type of research was made possible through a lot of European support.
- Researchers in the past may not always returned to explore theory and look at what good mental health actually looks like.