Embracing strength over fear: Reframing the narrative of mentally ill offenders – Tom Vander Beken

Research on mentally ill offenders in different disciplines often focuses more on the concept of ‘delinquent’ than on ‘mentally ill’. It is important to change the way these subjects are approached in research and in society. The aim of the study was to embrace a strengths-based approach rather than a risk-based approach to this group of people. A five-year project was carried out between 2014 and 2019, resulting in a photo book and involving the mentally ill offenders themselves throughout the process. The project was funded by Ghent University in a scheme for multidisciplinary projects. A website was also created to bundle all information on the different lines of research.

A risk-based approach emphasises what mentally ill offenders cannot do or the potential danger they bring to society. A strengths-based approach, on the other hand, focuses on the strengths that these individuals have or can develop. A risk-based approach is still dominant in this field of projects, but in this study we used a strength-based approach that already existed in various disciplines. The multidisciplinary approach also meant that the perspectives of each discipline had to be translated, thus creating a common ground within the framework of a strengths-based approach. This approach was most commonly associated with the field of psychology, but certainly also with that of criminology and special needs education. Joining forces on a scientific, theoretical and methodological level strengthens both the design, findings and recommendations. In addition, joining forces brought a reflection on the potential of this kind of interdisciplinary work.

Methodologically, a strengths-based approach meant that the mentally ill offenders and their families were given the opportunity to describe their experiences themselves. Often it is the case that outsiders or experts do this. These experiences were not always positive, but the method allowed them to be shown in their complexity and with a positive attitude. The in-depth interviews that took place in the participants’ homes allowed them not only to have a voice but also a face. This was made possible through the cooperation with photographer Lieven Nollet, who created his own photo art project and many pictures from the interviewees. This cooperation was very spontaneous, as he worked on similar subjects with the intention of showing the strengths and humanity of these people through his camera. Thus, both parties saw an added value in combining their scientific and artistic work. Interviews were also held with practitioners and experts, but the focus was on the self-reporting of the stories by the mentally ill offenders themselves.

The photos taken, together with photos of the participants showing their daily lives, were eventually published in the book ‘Strong stories. Internment in a different light‘. The book was published in English and Dutch and distributed to politicians, academics and other institutions around the world. For example, every library in Flanders received a free copy. The book was presented during a conference on May 27, 2019 at which some participants were present and thus had the opportunity to engage in conversation with the other stakeholders such as field workers, policy makers and academics. The photos were exhibited during this conference. This demonstrated that it is possible to create an accessible and appealing piece of work that also has scientific value. The addition of all the photographs certainly has an added value.

The work with mentally ill offenders, family members, stakeholders and practitioners brought up a number of practical recommendations. These focus on how the strengths-based approach can be developed in practice. The recommendations for the mentally ill offenders and their families were taken into account, as they play an important role in the development of their strengths. Family members actively supported the project by participating in the first meeting, the conference and by their general involvement in the research. Another highlight of this project is that they are also recognised as important stakeholders who have their own story to tell. The response to the project was overwhelmingly enthusiastic and most participants expressed pride and joy at having their stories shown.

In terms of academic dissemination, not only has the book been distributed, but scholarly publications and presentations have also appeared. This is therefore the final report. Four doctoral theses were written as part of the project, one other is still pending, focusing on different aspects of the subject. In addition, lectures were held at the University of Manchester for both students and the local community. 

An additional contribution of this project to the academic community lies in its reflection on the role of researchers. They must be prepared to make themselves vulnerable, to open up and to really listen. In doing so, they must not lose sight of their scientific background. Research subjects are not just holders of data, they also have a complex story that needs to be taken seriously. This project clearly shows that a strengths-based approach can certainly work, make a difference, and be scientific. 

Findings were creatively shared and discussion was really stimulated among stakeholders in such a way that the project became a strength in itself for the participants.