Accelerating research in severe mental illness

Close up of a carer holding a man's hands

Five new research hubs form the basis of the UKRI mental health research platform, which aims to tackle key challenges in severe mental illness.

Having a severe mental illness (SMI) can significantly impact many aspects of your life. By providing effective treatment and support as early as possible, it can help those affected to live full and productive lives. This is why we are establishing a mental health research platform to accelerate research in this area to understand how and why mental illnesses develop so we can improve the lives of those affected.

SMIs include disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which severely impair a person’s ability to carry out even normal day to day functioning. People with SMI experience a range of inequalities compared to the general population; they are much less likely to be employed or live in stable accommodation, for example. However, what is most shocking is that the life expectancy of people with SMI is on average 10-20 years shorter than the general population, often because poor mental health also leads to poor physical health, and this mortality gap continues to widen.

With more than 500,000 people living with an SMI in England alone it is essential that we support and enable research that tackles the key challenges facing the field.

Gap in our knowledge

Conducting research in this area is not without its challenges, which is why discovery and development of more effective treatments of SMIs has been slow to progress. Put quite simply, we just do not know enough about why and how mental illnesses develop, why some people are at risk more than others and how to intervene early and effectively.

Efforts to address this gap in our knowledge have been hindered by a range of factors. Patients with the same disorder diagnosis can experience widely diverse symptoms. It is difficult to objectively measure mental illness and determine whether someone is responding to treatment. Research is also held back when it does not reflect the diversity of populations most affected by mental illness.

Harnessing diverse skill sets

To address these challenges, the Medical Research Council (MRC), on behalf of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), is establishing a £22.5 million mental health platform. The platform will bring together researchers from across a wide range of medical and non-medical disciplines and institutions. It aims to connect them together to focus and synergise their efforts on generating an in-depth understanding of those who experience SMI to help discover new approaches for diagnosis, treatment and support.

This initiative is supported by funding from the Securing Better Health, Ageing and Wellbeing theme, one of five UKRI-wide initiatives aiming to harness the full power of the UK’s research and innovation system to tackle large-scale, complex challenges.

Five platform research hubs

We have funded five platform research hubs that will form the basis of the platform:

Hub for Metabolic Psychiatry, Professor Daniel Smith, The University of Edinburgh.

This will investigate the relationship between metabolic disorders (such as obesity and diabetes) and severe mental illness, to develop novel treatment approaches for people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression.

Building recovery and resilience in severe mental illness: Leveraging the role of social determinants in illness trajectories and interventions, Professor Jennifer Lau, Queen Mary University of London.

This aims to generate new knowledge on the role of social determinants (the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live and age) in influencing the course and outcomes of SMIs and explore how we can leverage ‘protective’ social factors to build resilience and recovery in people with SMIs.

The South Wales and Southwest England Mental Health Platform Hub, Professor James Walters, Cardiff University.

This is looking to expand and validate the range of stratifying markers (including genetic and social factors) which can be used to improve detection, diagnosis and development of new interventions to help target precise, preventative and early care for SMI.

Transforming Care and Outcomes in Borderline Personality Disorder, Professor Scott Weich, Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust.

This will use quantitative, data-driven and creative qualitative approaches to better understand the complex, interacting problems experienced by people with Borderline Personality Disorder. They will work with lived experience experts to drive therapeutic innovation, improve support for professionals and reduce stigma.

CHECKPOINT: Finding immune & metabolic pathways to SMI, Professor Ed Bullmore, University of Cambridge.

This aims to find causal pathways by which immune and metabolic factors lead to severe mental illness, as a basis for new, personalised therapeutics that are precisely matched to the patients most likely to benefit.

These five hubs, each funded for five years, will bring together researchers across disciplines, including biological, social, computational and medical science, and connect more than 20 research organisations across the UK under this ambitious initiative.

Growing our understanding

A key goal of the platform will be to harness the power of health, social and biomedical data. Researchers will work with big data sets and advanced analytical techniques to grow our understanding of mental illness and how we can provide personalised interventions and support at the right time.

The mission of the platform will be driven by supporting research that meets the needs of those most affected by SMI and attempts to tackle the breadth of inequalities that exist, which is why the voice of those with lived experience of mental illness will be a critical component of the platform. Lived experience has already been central to the design and development of each hub and patient and public contributors were involved in scrutinising proposals and helped to make decisions about which hubs should be funded. People with lived experience of mental illness will continue to guide the strategy for the platform so that the research is of maximum benefit to end users.

Just the beginning

Funding the hubs is just the beginning for the platform. We will now recruit a director to lead and coordinate it, bringing the hubs together and collaborating with others to address shared areas of need and emerging opportunities. We are also committed to funding fellowships across the platform to foster a generation of talented individuals working in this area.

Mental health research is receiving much needed boosts to funding, through UKRI funding and others, which offers real opportunity to make progress in this important area. The platform will link with and form a critical part of this developing landscape, working with others across the research and innovation spectrum and internationally to push forward new opportunities to help people live well with SMI.

We will be sharing more details on our website about the platform as it develops. Find out more about the opportunity to direct the platform.

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