What is mental health research? Is it just for medication?

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What is mental health research? Before we get cracking, let me introduce myself. I’m Daisy, and I am the communications coordinator of the Mental Health Research Matters team. Before I started working for mental health organisations, I hadn’t thought about mental health in terms of research before. 

But advancements in any area take research and considered thought. There are plenty of unanswered questions about mental health, which means millions of people worldwide are struggling when they shouldn’t have to. We need more good-quality research so we know what helps and what doesn’t. 

Good mental health research can improve our understanding, find effective evidence-based treatments  – whether that’s community gardening or CBT -, and even prevent mental health problems from developing in the first place.

Research is a vital and often overlooked piece of the puzzle for better mental health outcomes for people. But, what exactly is it?

Research is all about medication, right?

This is something that I hear a lot. If I carried out a quick poll on the street, this would most likely be the first thing people say. There’s so much more to being a healthy person than just taking pills so, naturally, mental health research covers a broader remit. I don’t want to undermine the importance of medication. It’s a controversial subject, but for some people medication is lifesaving. However, there are so many other exciting ways to research mental health that don’t touch on medication at all.

This is what mental health research looks like

Working across the UKRI mental health research networks has opened my eyes to the breadth of different types of mental health research out there. I’ve picked a few of my favourite examples, to give you a taste of what mental health research can look like, but please find out more about the different networks and explore for yourself – they’ve achieved a lot over the past four years.

The UKRI mental health research networks have been asking some of the most important questions about mental health and our quality of life. Let’s take a look at some of them.

How can community assets help people’s mental health?

MARCH network explored how social and community assets – such as parks, libraries and leisure centres – could affect mental health. All of their work looks at communities and mental health, whether it was about spending time in nature, bridging the gap between hip hop and therapy, or developing an evidence-based toolkit for singing group leaders so they can be more inclusive of mental health.

What can be done to improve student mental health? 

Student mental health was a pressing and urgent issue even before lockdowns when students were navigating their studies whilst isolated in their uni bedrooms.  That’s why SMaRteN has helped deepen our understanding of this topic, including the creation of a graphic novel called ‘Things and the Mind’ where students shared their experiences of mental health and their relationship to material possessions. One SMaRteN-funded researcher wanted to find out more about postgraduate students feeling of belonging, or lack of, in universities, and how individualism and competition in academic institutions can affect doctoral students’ sense of belonging, especially those from minoritised groups. This is just a flavour of some of the amazing work SMaRteN has done during its lifetime.

How is spending time online affecting young people’s mental health?

A huge topic that I’m sure you’ve come across is social media and its effects on mental health. It’s all negative, right? The eNurture network has been making the case that it’s not as straightforward as that, with many young people finding community and resilience from online spaces. From shouting about the importance of improving the online safety of young people involved in live streaming to finding out more about care leavers, mental health and online spaces there’s a lot to explore when it comes to young people and the digital world. 

What can be done to address the shortened life expectancy for people with severe mental illness?

A statistic that never fails to astound me is that people with severe mental illness (SMI) such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia have an expected reduction of life expectancy of 20-25 years. For those with SMI, many factors come together that result in their increased likelihood of developing physical health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.

 Closing The Gap (CtG) wants to improve physical health outcomes for people with severe mental illness. CtG research has included exploring access to green and blue spaces for people with SMI, and how digital technology can improve health outcomes for people with SMI. Like all the other UKRI networks, working alongside people with relevant experience has been at the heart of the network. This is especially important as people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are so often left out of the conversation around mental health, with topics like anxiety and depression often taking centre stage.

How can we reduce the impact violence and abuse have on mental health?

It wouldn’t take results from mental health studies for you to realise that violence and abuse have a profound negative impact on a survivor’s mental health. However, mental health research can help us better understand, reduce or even prevent the mental health impact of abuse. VAMHN network has brought together the personal expertise of survivors of abuse with the professional expertise of people from different research fields to measure the mental health effects of violence and abuse, improve our understanding of how it affects people and develop interventions to help the mental health of survivors. You can see some examples of their funded research here.

How can we reduce the prevalence of mental health problems in children and young people?

Emerging Mind network has worked with young people, parents and carers to address anxiety and depression in young people. Their funded research has covered all kinds of topics, from exploring interventions for young people on CAMHS waiting lists, to improving wellbeing and mental health for 10-11-year-olds who experience racism. Their CoRay project developed mental health resources for young people by young people to help them with their mental health during the pandemic. See the full list of Emerging Minds-funded studies here.

How can we bring different groups together to improve young people’s mental health?

TRIUMPH network is all about bringing together young people, researchers, practitioners and policymakers to improve mental health for young people. They’ve funded some great work, including Reprezent: On The Level. Where a Brixton-based radio station worked with researchers to put on high-tech assemblies offering steps to help manage young people’s mental health. This was presented by young people and young people were involved in every step in designing the project. Another important study TRIUMPH funded was the STEP study, which offered training for schools to better support the mental health of LGBTQ+ young people.

See the full list of TRIUMPH-funded studies here.

How can we better understand how loneliness and social isolation affect mental health? What can we do to improve this?

Did you know that young people have the highest rates of loneliness compared to other age groups? I didn’t either before hearing more about the Loneliness and Social Isolation Mental Health Research Network (LSIMHRN). LSIMHRN funded research that explored loneliness in all kinds of different social groups, from postnatal depression to farming communities, to find out whether the ‘Shedding’ community can help reduce loneliness.

View the full list of LSIMHRN-funded projects here.

Final thoughts

I hope this has given you a taste of what mental health research can be. It’s a really broad topic, that can be approached in numerous ways and involves all kinds of people from different disciplines – not just psychologists! And, of course, there are all kinds of different types of research out there beyond the UKRI mental health research.

If you’re interested in learning more about mental health research, browse some of our brilliant blogs below.