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How the research community is working to help our mental health

How the research community is working to help our mental health

With growing concern about the far-reaching impact COVID-19 may have on people’s mental health, and with Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May) and its urgent theme of kindness, we take a look at the ways UK researchers and innovators are helping our mental health and wellbeing now and in the future.

Creating vital research networks

Eight Mental Health Networks—with £8 million of funding from UKRI and the government's Industrial Strategy – have been set up by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), looking at ways to help our mental health now and beyond lockdown.

The Networks cover a range of immediate areas:

  • the very real and present impact of loneliness and self-isolation
  • young people, digital health and student stress
  • violence and abuse
  • action for children’s mental health
  • improving health and reducing health inequalities for people with severe mental illness
  • social, cultural and community resilience and cohesion

Professor Elaine Fox of the University of Oxford is the Mental Health Networks' Impact and Engagement Co-ordinator. She said: “This network provides a unique opportunity to change the landscape of mental health so that we can build a world in which mental health problems can be effectively treated and prevented.”

Find out more about UKRI’s Mental Health Networks.

Mental health during COVID-19

SMaRteN (the Student Mental Health Research Network) is a national research network funded by UKRI, led by King's College London, focusing on student mental health in higher education.

In partnership with Vitae, SMaRteN is conducting research into the impact of COVID-19 on the working lives of doctoral researchers and research staff. SMaRteN and Vitae aim to develop a national picture for how doctoral researchers and research staff have been affected by the pandemic. Find out more about the SMaRteN study.

One of the rapid research response projects funded by UKRI is focused on the impact of isolation. Dr Isabel Oliver and her team at Public Health England will evaluate the public health measures and conduct surveys and interviews to assess the effectiveness and impacts of the 14-day self-isolation advice on mental health and wellbeing.

Are people following COVID19 self-isolation advice?
(Credit: UKRI)

Free access to the Sleepio and Daylight mental health apps for NHS staff has made possible by funding through our Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. Sleepio is a clinically evidenced sleep improvement programme that is fully automated and highly personalised, using cognitive behavioural techniques to help improve poor sleep. Daylight is a smartphone-based app that helps people experiencing symptoms of worry and anxiety, using evidence-based cognitive behavioural techniques, voice, and animation. Currently available to all NHS workers in England, the company is in discussion with NHS Scotland about extending the offer to Scottish staff too.

Researching the impact of kindness

With kindness the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, a team at the University of Sheffield has been awarded a three-year-long funding grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to investigate the impact of kindness on mental health.

The research is entitled Kindness matters: Helping people to achieve their goals by overcoming the barriers to being self-compassionate. The researchers aim to introduce a theoretical framework and use it to identify and develop strategies that can address the barriers to responding with self-compassion.

Dr Fuschia Sirois of the University of Sheffield is the Principal Investigator. She said. “Theory and research suggest that how people respond to lapses matters and, specifically, that responding with self-compassion (ie, with self-kindness and acceptance) can help.” Read more on page 6 of 'Society Now'.

Find out more about ESRC’s work on mental health.

Bringing mental health treatment up to date

Autifony Therapeutics, which specialises in developing new drugs to treat serious disorders of the central nervous system, is developing a promising new drug with support of Innovate UK – part of UKRI.

Schizophrenia affects more than 21 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation. Sufferers commonly experience delusions, hallucinations, cognitive issues leading to problems in decision-making in daily life, loss of self-esteem and withdrawal from society. Current treatment focuses on anti-psychotic drugs, with additional psycho-social therapy in some cases. The drugs used to treat schizophrenia have changed little in the last 50 years.

Chief executive Dr Charles Large said:

“There are established treatments that have been around since the 1950s. They have limited efficacy and come with significant side-effects. They treat the so-called positive symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucination and thought disorder, but they have limited ability to treat the other symptoms, including cognitive impairments, apathy and reduced social interaction. Our hypothesis is that if we can target specific circuits in the brain involved in the pathology of schizophrenia, we should be able to address the cognitive and negative symptoms of the disorder, and potentially provide improved treatment for the positive symptoms.”

Autifony’s drug AUT00206 targets neurons in the brain that are important for cognitive function. Studies have shown that the ability of these neurons to regulate brain activity is degraded in people with schizophrenia.

Dr Large added: “If our drug does prove effective it could be revolutionary. It would enable patients to get back to a level of functioning potentially compatible with holding down a job and living independently. From what we have seen already, we anticipate that this would be with relatively low side-effects.”

Promising new drugs to treat disorders of the central nervous system
(Credit: UKRI)
Video transcript is available here (PDF, 84KB)

Standing up to the stigma

There are many areas the research community is helping stop the stigma surrounding mental health, and Professor Sir Graham Thornicroft is at the fore.

He’s the leading expert in research funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) on mental health discrimination and stigma, and is heading a global study tackling the issue in developing and high-income countries.

He says: “Across the globe the stigma that surrounds mental health illness poses a colossal challenge and hits some of the most vulnerable people in our society the hardest.  We want the Indigo Partnership to make a real contribution towards people gaining greater access to effective mental health care and better social inclusion. We also want to support research capacity. In the course of this study staff in the whole partnership will support research staff in China, Ethiopia, India and Tunisia to develop their research skills and their careers, so that they can establish centres of excellence in stigma research in each of these countries in future.”

Find out more about MRC’s work on mental health.

Over in ESRC, Louise Arseneault is ESRC's Mental Health Leadership Fellow and she’s been spearheading a project of five interviews to broadcast the expertise of leading figures in the mental health field.

The series entitled Let’s Talk Mental Health, incorporates interviews with representatives from research, government, clinic and charity, and aims to impart knowledge, skills and expertise on the subject of mental health.

Read Louise’s blog here, or watch the interviews here.

Helping young people and students

In the UK, a quarter of 17-19 year olds – equating to 1.25 million people – are experiencing significant levels of depression or anxiety, yet less than a third of these young people receive any treatment.

Thankfully, a lot is being done to help. As well as the work through UKRI £8 million Networks fund, Dr Nicola Byron, a Lecturer in Psychology at King’s College London, is using UKRI ‘Network Plus’ funding to investigate the current crisis in student mental health, collaborating with key student groups aiming to improve our understanding of student mental health. Find out more about the study.

The digital environment for young people has a huge impact, too. An MRC-funded programme at the University of Nottingham will look at how digital technology could potentially transform adolescent mental health and wellbeing and provide a safe, and supportive, digital environment to tackle the growing crisis arising from mental health disorders in young people.

After commissioning a report by Vitae on post-graduate researcher (PGR) mental health, Research England has funded 17 projects through the Catalyst Fund. The projects, overseen by Research England and the Office for Students, address many of the recommendations of the report and include areas such as the role of supervisors in PGR mental health, connecting other students and working with bodies such as Student Minds.

Understanding the science

Researchers at the University of Cardiff’s MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics were involved in a study which has highlighted the potential of real-time neurofeedback as an effective treatment for depression.

Professor David Linden, who supervised the far-reaching MRC-funded study, said: “Our work suggests that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) neurofeedback has the potential to reduce depressive symptoms by over 40%.”

Over in Cambridge, the team at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (MRC CBU) has been studying diagnostic approaches to mental health.

Their research looks at the use of a ‘transdiagnostic’ approach, which cuts across traditional diagnostic boundaries and, more radically, sets them aside altogether to provide novel insights into how we might understand mental health difficulties.

If you are struggling with your mental health or know someone that is, please visit the NHS website for a list of support groups that can help, or call the Samaritans on 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline).