[Posted on 17 July, 2018 by Lucy Thompson]
I have just returned from the excellent World Association of Infant Mental Health (WAIMH) congress. This is a meeting held every 2 years (alternately in Europe / outside Europe) and it is absolutely huge. Held over 5 days, there were 6 plenary sessions, 3 invited symposia, 1 half-day ‘presidential’ symposium, 97 general symposia (each containing 3-5 papers), 79 workshops, 9 poster workshops, 42 brief oral presentations (each containing 4-10 papers), and 505 posters (~170 per day). This is not to mention the 2 pre-congress institutes and 3 master classes (not part of the main congress programme). Its vastness was thrilling on the one hand, and thoroughly overwhelming on the other. I had been looking forward to the congress – as a non-clinical psychologist most interested in the early foundations of life course trajectories, this was a meeting I had a long-held ambition to attend. I did enjoy it: I learned some new things and made some useful connections with fellow researchers. But despite the overwhelming size of the event, ultimately I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed, and I have been challenging myself to understand why.
It would seem I was not alone. The main topic of small talk among delegates seemed to be, “yes, this is wonderful, but we just can’t take it all in!” Among several of my colleagues who were also in attendance, there were very few of us who came away feeling they had experienced a ‘light bulb’ moment of inspiration. Over dinner on our last night, we mused as to why this might be so. We agreed that it was not the quality of the conference – it really was an impressive programme. But we felt that most of us at the conference were ‘on the same page’ – we were mainly psychologists talking to psychologists, and although researchers from other disciplines were of course present, they were already working and thinking from a psychological perspective. There was therefore inevitably a fair amount of repetition in key messages, which can be reinforcing, but not always particularly invigorating. And we academics tend to present according to an established formula – here is the idea, here is the research, here is why we think it is important. If we’re lucky this process stimulates fiery discussion, but in my experience there is rarely time for this. In fact, our formula is often hampered by a quest to rush out all the things we wanted to say in the small amount of allotted time.
I think, then, that we need to do conferences differently. I’m not sure we really need these fora as a means of sharing research findings any more – surely the internet takes care of a significant degree of the information sharing that once necessitated congregation (the apparently growing time-lag from paper submission to publication notwithstanding). I’m sure many in the academic community will agree that the best conference sessions are those which break the formula: which nudge you out of your comfort zone, force you to wake up, think differently, actually within the room at the time, perhaps with peers you would never normally have found yourself discussing these issues with in normal working life. In the case of the present example, infant mental health is not just for psychologists, or paediatricians, or indeed health professionals / scientists of any discipline. It is for all of us – we are all infant mental health. We all were once infants, and many of us have and still are parenting and grandparenting infants, and many of our professional endeavours have an impact on infants’ lives. There are so many perspectives that could be brought to the table when aiming to advance our knowledge, understanding, and intervention in the mental health of people when they are at their newest, most impressionable, and most vulnerable. How about an architect joining the discussion, or a town planner, or a politician, or a farmer? I wonder how it would be to direct our resources to more diverse fora that include all of us who have an impact on infant mental health through our professional lives, not just those of us ‘doing’ mental health?