Understanding mental distress from the perspective of the household: a Q&A with Nikita Simpson

Exploring issues related to gender, ethnicity, race, class and regional inequality 

Nikita Simpson is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology and a member of the Covid and Care Research Group.

We hope to suggest what kinds of policies might best support disadvantaged households and communities through the pandemic and into recovery.

Nikita Simpson

Nikita Simpson
Nikita Simpson

You are a member of the Covid and Care Research Group. Can you tell us about the Group’s work and your role?

The Covid and Care Research Group are a collective of anthropologists, primarily from LSE but also from University of Cambridge, Queen Mary University, amongst others. We draw on a range of methods such as ethnography, participatory mapping and citizen science to understand the impact of the pandemic on networks of care across the UK. 

We explore issues related to gender, ethnicity, race, class and regional inequality. Our research group is collaborative in approach, and works with other disciplines, policy makers, community leaders and groups across different locations to gain insight into these issues and generate policy solutions and support local community initiatives.

I am the research coordinator and co-investigator of our first grant - the ‘Innovations in Care’ project. I have worked with the principal investigator, Laura Bear, to design the research, facilitate collaborative discussions across our diverse team, produce policy briefs and lead the co-writing process. 

What attracted you to this area of research?

My PhD research is focused on understanding mental distress from the perspective of the household in India. When the first lockdown was announced, I was struck that precisely what I was studying amongst a tribal community of rural Himachal Pradesh had baring on Covid-ravaged Britain.

Namely, that the very networks of care within and between households were being cut off and reshaped by government policies. Grandparents were no longer able to share burdens of childcare. Women were being forced to absorb the care demands of their families. I was interested in exploring what types of households were most adversely impacted by this care deficit, how people were improvising to get around it, and how we might build policies that support households.

What impact do you hope your work will have on policy and society?

We hope to have two major impacts through this work – first, to suggest what kinds of policies might best support disadvantaged households and communities through the pandemic and into recovery.

In our report, we have developed a number of innovative policy solutions. For example, we suggest building local community renewal centres that provide formal free or highly subsidised child, elder and other care alongside mental health support, and access to small business grants in disadvantaged communities. We hope to workshop solutions like this with local policy teams and community organisations.

Secondly, we hope to raise the profile of rich anthropological insights in policy making. We have worked in conversation with policy makers over the last six months, at local authority level right through to Whitehall.

We believe that anthropological methods are useful for explaining what policy makers can’t explain with Big Data, and for understanding the potentially stigmatising impacts of certain policy decisions.

Anthropological methods can be deployed rapidly by independent teams to track the perceptions of policies in different communities; and the histories and social divides that policies are refracted through.

We built a model for this kind of rapid ethnographic research that we deployed alongside Public Health England and the local response team during the first Leicester lockdown in June. 

What have been the highlights of your research work so far?

The highlight of this work has been learning from and working with a brilliant cross-generational, intersectional team of anthropologists. This work could not have been done by any one of us alone. Our regular meetings, where we generously share insights, stories and techniques provide a model for anthropological work that is collaborative and collective – quite different to the disciplinary norm. 

What has been your biggest challenge?

Our biggest challenge has been learning how to strategically present our work in different formats to appeal to different audiences.

To engage policy makers, we have produced rapid, crisp briefs. For the public, we have collaborated with artists like Maggie Li and Grey Hutton to represent and illustrate our work. For academics, we have written a core intellectual intervention in the form of a monograph report

How has Covid-19 affected the research process and what tips do you have for other PhD students for keeping stress levels down?

The honest, regular conversations that I have had with our research team and its leaders have kept me going. We were able to articulate the values and principles of our work together, making it a joy, rather than a stress, to work together.