The role of interdisciplinary studies in mental health research

Anne-Laure Le Cunff, a member of the SMaRteN network and the Mental Health Research Matters steering group, discusses the importance of interdisciplinary mental health research. She argues we need to bring together people from different disciplines and expertise in order to further mental health research that is effective and inclusive.

Interdisciplinary mental health research brings together expertise from multiple academic backgrounds to better understand mental health.

Mental health research is inherently interdisciplinary. As Karl Popper said: “We are not students of some subject matter but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject or discipline.” This is true of mental health, which can be affected by many factors, whether they are psychological, social, or environmental.

More importantly, interdisciplinary studies are essential in order to paint a holistic picture of mental health and offer support that works for everyone. Inclusive mental health research requires expertise covering a wide range of disciplines (such as psychologists, nurses, support workers, and social workers), a variety of research methods (quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods), and knowledge from community members (patients, people with lived experience, organisational stakeholders).

What are the benefits of interdisciplinary mental health research?

Bringing people together from different disciplines is critical to harness the power of diverse ideas and to pool knowledge from a broad range of expertise. Not just the areas of research most directly concerned with the mind and the brain, such as psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience.

Another benefit of interdisciplinary studies is the increased level of collaboration and communication across different disciplines, which is especially important when tackling complex problems that demand creative solutions.

Such complex problems have many stakeholders and fuzzy boundaries, making them challenging to navigate — which is certainly the case for mental health research. When asked to devise creative solutions to real-world complex problems, groups — and especially diverse groups — have been found to outperform individuals.

There are some areas of mental health research where interdisciplinary studies can be particularly beneficial. For instance, researchers noted that understanding mental health in the workplace requires consideration of perspectives at individual (such as the role of accommodations and how employees are impacted by them), organisational (offering resources and building an inclusive workplace), and societal (considering the role of stereotypes) levels.

As another example, interdisciplinary studies are crucial to understanding mental health in education, for example relating to the role of neurodiversity (ADHD, autism, dyslexia etc) or mental health conditions (depression, anxiety etc). Both create non-academic barriers to learning that warrant the involvement of experts and stakeholders across the educational journey to address effectively. However, in the words of Elin Borg and Øyvind Pålshaugen: “Studies evaluating interventions that target interdisciplinary collaboration to promote students’ mental health are scarce.”

These are just a couple of areas that could urgently benefit from more investment into interdisciplinary mental health research. All mental health research should ideally be highly collaborative, span multiple disciplines, and involve a diversity of stakeholders.

The slow emergence of interdisciplinary mental health research

Interdisciplinary research projects are still few and far between. One of the reasons why it is still difficult to conduct interdisciplinary work is the lack of funding spanning several disciplines, perspectives, and methods.

As Professor Kamaldeep Bhui suggests: “In the way things are structured, there is already a disciplinary divide. A step in the right direction would be more cross council funding calls, more collaboration at the funding council level which can then trickle down to the researchers.”

Another reason is the lack of a shared language about mental health. As Margaret A. Somerville explains: “We speak the language of our discipline, which raises two problems: first, we may not understand the languages of the other disciplines; second, more dangerously, we may think that we understand these, but do not, because although the same terms are used in different disciplines, they mean something very different in each.”

This can create communication challenges, and necessitates extensive effort for interdisciplinary teams to learn the language of another field and to teach others the language of their own field.

Despite these challenges, there is an emerging movement encouraging more interdisciplinarity in mental health research. For example, the Mental Health, Environment and Socio-Economic Data Integration Group, funded by the UKRI, has been applying an interdisciplinary and intersectoral perspective to mental health research, with the goal of incorporating the co-production of research with service users and carers.

Mental Health Research Matters, a UKRI-funded initiative, amplifies the work of the eight mental health research networks. These networks are formed of academics, clinicians, third sector representatives and those with lived experience, amongst others, to tackle a variety of interdisciplinary mental health research projects. Some of these interdisciplinary projects include, but are not limited to:

Fostering interdisciplinarity in mental health research

Here are three strategies that can be applied to foster more interdisciplinarity and inclusivity in mental health research:

1. Assembling interdisciplinary research teams. Instead of considering mental health in silos, interdisciplinary studies should aim for a more comprehensive understanding of the multidimensional nature of mental health by bringing together specialists from different backgrounds and tapping into knowledge from a variety of disciplines.

Such interdisciplinary research teams can for instance increase opportunities for multimethodology (using more than one method of data collection and analysis in a research study) and intersectionality (considering the role of mental health factors such as — but not confined to — gender, sex, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability).

2. Fostering collaboration with research networks. By bringing together people from different disciplines to investigate research questions through a diversity of lenses, research networks can contribute to the generation of translational insights at the junction of several disciplines that can then be disseminated to a wider community of relevant stakeholders.

Here are a couple of great examples from across the UKRI mental health research networks: the Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) works with researchers with a range of expertise and key stakeholders across the higher education sector, and the Violence, Abuse and Mental Health Network (VAMHN) connects experts with different ways of thinking about violence, abuse and mental health, whether they have personal experience of these issues, expertise from the work that they do, or both. More examples can be found here.

3. Broadening participation outside of academia

Interdisciplinarity mental health research should include a wide range of perspectives and sources of expertise, whether these are acquired through work or lived experience. Alongside interdisciplinarity, it is important to equitably involve community members with a partnership approach to mental health research. Individuals with relevant lived experience can contribute information and assistance to the project team, ensuring that the research is inclusive and reflexive. Methods to broaden participation outside of academia can range from initial engagement of the public to the empowering of communities that can lead to collective change.

Interdisciplinary mental health research requires bringing together research teams from a variety of disciplines, foster collaboration with research networks, and broaden participation outside of academia to include people with lived experience, community members, and organisational stakeholders. Interdisciplinary studies pose unique challenges, but they have the potential to contribute truly inclusive mental health research that both involves and benefits the communities they aim to support.