Becoming – a community outreach project

Madeleine Moses-Payne, PhD student

Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging Public Engagement Innovation Fund – £2,000
Arts Council – £14,998

A project exploring how teenagers develop their sense of self has been funded by the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging Public Engagement Innovation Fund and a grant from the Arts Council.

Becoming: Exploring Adolescence will engage with young people from communities typically underserved by science to ensure that the Centre’s research aims and hypotheses complement the needs of young people.

Adolescence is a unique period of cognitive, social, and biological development. Moses-Payne’s research in the Developmental Computational Psychiatry team investigates how young people develop the ability to self-reflect and construct their sense of self during adolescence.

This work is also crucial for our understanding of mental health conditions such as depression, which tends to first emerge during adolescence.

“Adolescence is a period of heightened risk for the onset of mental health conditions, such as depression,” says Moses-Payne. “We know that low self-esteem prospectively predicts the onset of depression in adolescence, and self-directed emotions, such as self-deprecation and self-hatred, are core symptoms of adolescent depression. Therefore, the way young people reflect upon themselves might be a particularly important avenue for research. Most people will construct a relatively positive view of themselves, while others may not. We are interested in why and for whom.”

Becoming provides a unique opportunity to consult with young people about the construction of their self-concept and how they use their emerging autonomy to explore their environment and discover new aspects of their sense of self.

Working with schools and community groups, the project will recruit four groups of 10 young people to take part in a series of eight workshops. Moses-Payne and EMERGE(ncy) PARTY will target young people from communities who may typically be overlooked by scientific research, including refugees, young carers, and people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Each session will explore one of Moses-Payne’s core research questions, including: neuroplasticity, identity, the looking-glass self (how others influence our sense of self), agency and autonomy, risk-taking, peer influence, and group action. In the workshops, teenagers will produce creative works, such as written pieces, drawings or soundscapes, based on collaborative discussions with Moses-Payne and EMERGE(ncy) PARTY members.

“One of the main things we want to make sure we achieve is that the adolescents feel safe and comfortable to share their thoughts on the research topics we will be presenting. Because we’re interested in self-concept and risk-taking and peer influence, it could potentially be difficult for young people to want to share, especially in a group setting.

“This is why we want to make sure the sessions are youth-led, where there’s no one who’s in charge of them or an authority. It’s just young people interacting with other young people.”

An image of an artwork

At the end of the eight sessions, the group will decide how they wish to share their creations with their local community – perhaps by giving out poems with food parcels at a local food bank, or running an exhibition evening at a local café. The work will also be displayed online to reach a wider audience.

Then, through additional funding, the project team will select an smaller group of adolescents who they believe will particularly benefit from long-term engagement. This group will co-produce a theatre production based around the theme of self-concept, to be premiered in late 2021 to early 2022.

To provide a glimpse into the inner workings of Becoming: Exploring Adolescence, the young participants will share their insights and creative endeavours from each workshop on an online blog.

Moses-Payne is most looking forward to seeing the work that these young people produce and allowing it to influence her research on teenagers’ mental health:

“I’m really excited to have a collection of work from young people that I can refer back to when I’m designing my next studies, and I’m looking forward to hearing their thoughts about my work. It will be really interesting and important to see what the young people think about the issues that we, as researchers, assume are important to them.”