Building vital mental health networks

We have set up eight mental health networks to look at ways of improving the nation’s mental health now and beyond the COVID-19 restrictions on people’s lives.

The networks offer 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. They cover the following:

  • 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.

Mental health during COVID-19

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

In partnership with Vitae, SMaRteN is researching the impact of COVID-19 on the working lives of doctoral researchers and research staff. SMaRteN and Vitae aim to develop a national picture of how they have been affected by the pandemic.

One of the rapid research response projects we are funding looks at the impact of isolation. Dr Isabel Oliver and her team at Public Health England will evaluate public health measures and carry out surveys and interviews to assess the effectiveness of the 14-day self-isolation advice and gauge its impact on mental health and wellbeing.

UKRI: Are people following COVID-19 self-isolation advice?

Funding through our UKRI Challenge Fund has given NHS staff free access to the Sleepio and Daylight mental health apps. Sleepio is a fully automated and highly personalised sleep improvement programme that uses cognitive behavioural techniques. Daylight is a smartphone-based app that eases symptoms of worry and anxiety through cognitive behavioural techniques, voice and animation. Both apps are backed by clinical evidence.

Researching the impact of kindness

A team at the University of Sheffield has been awarded a three-year grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to explore the impact of kindness on mental health.

It helps people to achieve their goals by overcoming the barriers to being self-compassionate. The researchers aim to develop strategies that can address the problem. Read more on page six of ‘Society Now’.

Bringing mental health treatment up to date

Autifony Therapeutics, which specialises in treatments for serious disorders of the central nervous system, is developing a new drug with support from 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.

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.

UKRI: What’s it like to live with #schizophrenia?

Standing up to the stigma

There are many areas in which the research community is helping end the stigma surrounding mental health.

Professor Sir Graham Thornicroft is an expert in research funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) on mental health discrimination and stigma.

He is heading a global study, the Indigo Partnership, tackling the issue in developing and high-income countries. It 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.

Louise Arseneault, ESRC’s Mental Health Leadership Fellow, has been spearheading a project of five interviews with leading clinicians and figures from research, government and charity. It aims to impart knowledge, skills and expertise on the subject of mental health.

Helping young people and students

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

Dr Nicola Byron, a Lecturer in Psychology at King’s College London, is using UKRI ‘Network Plus’ funding to investigate the crisis in student mental health. She is working with student groups to improve understanding of student mental health.

The digital environment has a huge impact on young people, too. An MRC-funded programme at the University of Nottingham is investigating how adolescent mental health and wellbeing could be transformed by a safe and supportive digital environment.

After commissioning a report by Vitae on postgraduate researcher (PGR) mental health, Research England has also funded 17 projects through the Catalyst Fund.

Understanding the science

Researchers at the University of Cardiff’s MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics have highlighted the potential of real-time neurofeedback as an effective treatment for depression.

Their work suggests that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) neurofeedback could reduce depressive symptoms by more than 40%.

Meanwhile, a team at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge has been studying diagnostic approaches to mental health.

Their research looks at an approach which cuts across and even ignores traditional diagnostic boundaries to provide novel insights into how we might understand mental health difficulties.

Last updated: 11 September 2023

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