Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Mental health research

MRC supports world-class mental health research, creating new opportunities to treat and prevent mental health illness, such as anxiety and depression, which are estimated to affect around one in six people at any time in the UK.

MRC has invested more than £140 million over the last five years in research directly addressing mental health questions
Partners involved:
Medical Research Council (MRC)

The scope and what we're doing

The Medical Research Council (MRC) supports world-class mental health research, creating new opportunities to treat and prevent mental illness.

Our strategy for lifelong mental health research

Our strategy for lifelong mental health research sets out how we will speed up our understanding of mental illness with the long-term aim of developing new treatments for the prevention of, and early interventions for, mental disorders.

In this strategy we set out our priorities for mental health research and provide examples of the groundbreaking research we continue to support, from funding researchers to study the role our genes play in mental health, through to developing new digital technologies to help people to live with conditions as challenging as schizophrenia.

Mental health and wellbeing has long been a key strand of MRC’s strategic plan.

Our strategy sets out how the MRC will ensure the UK is at the forefront of new discovery science in mental health. We will:

  • prioritise mental health research, taking a holistic perspective from childhood throughout life
  • support discovery science by building capability as a prelude to new investments that will promote multidisciplinary research s and validate new treatment targets
  • transform mental health research by identifying subgroups of individuals with distinct characteristics; making investments to understand the causes; harnessing NHS and population study data; and providing new opportunities for academic or industry engagement in mental health research.

Expected outcomes are:

  • enhanced understanding of the causes of mental illness
  • improved links between biological mechanism and the social and environmental drivers of mental health and illness
  • routes to new interventions and preventative approaches
  • better diagnosis and treatment development through stratified and precision medicine
  • accelerated progress in the understanding of disorder mechanisms through better models and markers of disorder, and the use of big data and informatics
  • increased understanding of the importance of comorbidity between disorders and the complex interactions between physical and mental health
  • enhanced capacity and capability of researchers.

Our strategic delivery plan for 2019 highlights mental health and prevention as priority challenges.

Working together to tackle objectives

We work closely with other funders and policymakers in this field. MRC is a member of a national group of mental health research funders. This helps us take a strategic overview of mental health research and identify areas for special action. It comprises members from the government and charity sectors, for example, Department of Health, Economic and Social Research Council, MQ, McPin Foundation and Wellcome Trust. The group coordinates with other funders and lay or service user groups to consider the applicability of activity to patients and the public.

Mental health research goals

As funders of mental health research across the UK, we are delighted to support the mental health research goals. These four goals, developed by funders of mental health research, academics and clinicians, and people living with mental health problems, form an agenda for mental health research in the UK over the next decade. Having ambitious but achievable targets ensures that progress against the goals can be measured, highlighting where to focus efforts to make a difference to people’s lives.

Find out more about the four mental health research goals 2020-2030.

Cross-disciplinary mental health research agenda

Seven of the UK’s nine research councils have an interest in building capacity and strengthening mental health research in the UK. The cross-disciplinary mental health research agenda was published in 2017 and sets out research areas and cross-cutting themes that require an innovative, cross-disciplinary approach to speed up progress and impact through novel and transformative research.

Framework for mental health research

The government published its framework for mental health research in 2017. MRC was represented on the steering group along with other public and charity funders of mental health research.

The framework sets out 10 recommendations to improve the impact of mental health research in the next decade, focusing on prevention and early intervention, increased patient and public engagement and user research, and stronger connections between physical and mental health research.

The framework also points to harnessing advances in technology and broadening the skill base by encouraging the wider life sciences community to invest in mental health research.

MRC spending on mental health research

MRC investments in mental health research encompass a broad range of activities:

  • research projects that directly address mental health questions
  • training and capacity building
  • underpinning research projects, resources and facilities that support the field.

Examples of research projects supported by MRC include:

  • stratified medicine research to address treatment resistance and therapeutic advances in schizophrenia
  • brain function and development in infants and toddlers to explore autism risk
  • research at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit which aims to translate findings from basic science studies to refine existing clinical assessments and interventions.

We also support underpinning neuroscience and cognitive research such as attention and learning and resources for the mental health research community, including longitudinal cohorts, imaging facilities and brain banking resources.

MRC-funded research in other areas also makes an important contribution to mental health, including neurodegenerative disease, global health research and informatics.

Supporting population cohorts

We invest £12.2 million annually in the core funding for 22 population cohorts. These large scale studies of groups of individuals provide a wealth of longitudinal phenotypic, biological and social data for studying health and wellbeing throughout the life course.

A number of these cohorts include mental health measures:

  • 11 to16 and 16 plus study
  • Born in Bradford
  • CFAS
  • DASH
  • EPIC Norfolk
  • e-risk
  • Hertfordshire cohort study
  • Lothian birth cohort 1936
  • Million women study
  • 1946 birth cohort
  • 1958 birth cohort
  • Newcastle 85 plus
  • Southampton women’s survey
  • TEDS
  • UK Biobank
  • West of Scotland twenty-07 study
  • The Whitehall study
  • The Wirral cohort.

A detailed MRC strategic review of the largest UK population cohort studies and our cohort directory provide useful information on the available cohorts, and details on the measures collected and participant characteristics.

Why we're doing it

Mental illness places a huge burden on individuals, their families and society more widely. Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are estimated to affect approximately one in six people at any time in the UK, with an estimated cost to the economy of £70 billion to £100 billion annually.

Last updated: 12 September 2023

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