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Visualizing the Mind of the Individual

Visualizing Mental Illness

Weekly Fellow: Hanneke Wigman

NIAS Fellow Hanneke Wigman discusses the field of Psychology, and the place of qualitative and quantitative data, specifically in reference to diary studies and symptom networks. On Thursday 2 May Wigman, Assistant Professor at the University of Groningen, gave her seminar entitled "Mental Health and/or Illness: the Good, the Bad, and the Complex".

How did you come into psychology research?

Research into any topic is always going to start with an interest. My interest, even during my undergrad years, was the human mind. It helped that my uncle was a developmental psychologist, and while this specific focus turned out not be my forte studying psychology allowed my interest into mental illness, and in particular the study of psychosis, to flourish. It was a matter of curiosity. Mental illness is an abnormal state of mentality, and I wanted to know what it was like. It came from an empathetic place I think.

Nevertheless, after getting to experience both the clinical side, and the research side, of psychology it was difficult to choose where I wanted to go. Both branches were great, and in a science like psychology the two sides are intrinsically connected. Even now that I am doing research, the end goal is to be able to apply it to clinical practice. Eventually it was the process of doing my PhD that showed me how fun research actually was. Suffice it to say that I was hooked.

The research hopes to explore network theory and symptom networks. How would you describe a symptom network?

Simply put, a symptom network is a way to visualise the interaction of multiple symptoms. In a network of symptoms, including many symptoms like  feelings of sadness, loneliness and hearing voices for example,  such a  network can help us to understand how one of these symptoms may trigger another.

You are looking at how diary studies can be used to map individual symptom networks. How do you believe that diary studies can achieve something like this?

It is a methodological necessity when researching symptom networks within one individual. Quantitative data like this, in this case taken over a 90 day period, compiles a vast amount of data. With this data being based on daily responses to questions on the symptoms our participants were experiencing, we can create a detailed symptom network for all the participants. This means that we cannot generalise the conclusions to fit with all mental illness, or with all possible individuals, but it increases our understanding nonetheless. The first step in applying scientific knowledge is understanding it. So we are taking the first step to achieving clinical use.

Do you feel as though implementing more qualitative research methods will help the progression of the field? If so, how come?

My experience in the field of psychology research has largely made use of quantitative data. The choice of methodology really depends on what is being done; it depends on the question. And for some research questions it is appropriate that you should make use of both quantitative and qualitative data.

What do you value most about NIAS so far?

NIAS has given me access to some much needed space to breathe. I have spent the last months writing the first draft for a grant application. This is something I would never have been able to complete without actually being able to put in the hours. The first few weeks here gave me the chance to just read. Something which I haven’t had the chance to do for some time now. It helped me get in the right head space to fully focus on my research.

Have you had any exemplary noteworthy experiences at NIAS or Amsterdam in general?

As part of my fellowship I organized a workshop in which myself and 12 experts in psychology were able to come together and really consolidate ideas and aims for the future. These experts were not just researchers either. There were clinical practitioners and individuals who had experienced mental illness. My fellowship at NIAS pushed me to put something like this together, and it has been of tremendous value.