Katia Levecque

     Katia Levecque


What is your main driver for doing research?

Definitely a sense of curiosity to explore how the world works, how individuals think, feel and act. What triggers me the most is how psychological processes and social structure are interrelated. Why do people think and feel the way they do and how is this connected to their social position and social role in society? Two main lenses through which I look at these questions are social inequality and diversity.
For me personally, airy-fairy academia does not do the trick. To me, research is preferably a vehicle for making the world a better place: to inform policy, to help businesses to develop, to help people flourish. In the course of my career, I have been looking at the mental health of people across the social ladder: from people in poverty living on the margins of society to academics in high-status institutions. Across the social ladder, the challenges to flourish and optimize mental health are very different, as is the impact of mental health problems on one’s life, work and family. What is not different across the social ladder, is the gratitude that people express when they feel that their day-to-day struggle is being voiced in your research. Such feedback is heart-warming, giving purpose and meaning to my work.

Why do you believe that strengthening mental health is so important?

Humans are fascinating creatures, able to create amazing things. The ability to flourish, realise one’s full potential and contribute to society is however dependent on one’s physical, mental and social health. To me, this consideration of health as a whole mind body experience within the context of a community is an important mindset when doing research. Such mindset is evident in many cultures, but not in the tradition of western science. Leading agencies such as the World Health Organization are surely inspiring more and more researchers to get out of their disciplinary silos and join forces in order to help strengthening mental health. This is definitely a good thing because the need is pressing: the world is changing more rapidly than before and more and more people experience difficulties handling the challenges, resulting in rising numbers of mental health problems and disorders. Although society is changing in many ways, at least one pattern seems to be very resistant: those at the lower end of the social ladder carry most of the burden of disease, making it more difficult for them to fully capitalize on their talents and reach their full potential. 

How could research change the world?

As shown throughout history, research can change the world in many ways: it has enlightened our lives, helped explain our place in the world, has triggered and stimulated progress in technology and medicine, and ultimately shapes our world views.
As far as change relating to mental health is concerned, one of the most necessary changes that research can help bring about is the alleviation of stigma and taboo. Across cultures, mental health problems and disorders are perceived, apprehended and acted upon differently. Most cultures have certain levels of mental health stigma, devaluing, disgracing and disfavoring individuals with mental health problems and illnesses. Stigma often leads to individual and structural discrimination, to inequitable treatment and to the denial of rights and responsibilities accompanying full citizenship. Research can play a valuable role by raising awareness and health literacy, taking into account cultural barriers to accept “western” scientific knowledge on the issue.

With whom outside academia did you already collaborate and achieved important results?

In the early years of my research career, I worked in a research unit that focused on poverty and social exclusion. This unit had intense collaborations with policy makers, social workers and “experts by experience”, so people who were still in poverty or who had been poor for a considerable part of their life. The exchange of ideas and expertise triggered important communication processes between science, practice, policy and people in poverty. It resulted in action programs and initiatives that fostered solidarity and understanding, and got the issue of poverty and mental health on the Flemish research and policy agenda.
In more recent years, my research focus has been on academia. Last year, our paper on work organization and mental health of PhD students in Flanders went viral, becoming the second most discussed scientific paper in 2017 (see Altmetrics Top 100 of 2017). Since its publication, different stakeholders from around the world have been in contact: PhD students, supervisors, universities, governments, scientific publishers, journalists, HR consultants, even insurance companies. Today, more than 1,5 year after its publication, the demand for input and consultancy remains high. But more and more experts are joining in and collaborations are being set up. I am pleased to see that so many different bottom-up and top-down initiatives have been set up or are being developed. Collaboration with colleagues that results in real-life impact is just a fantastic way of doing research.




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