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6 ways we can revolutionise mental health

From healthcare that prevents suicide to support that tackles anxiety in hours, could these projects transform our mental health?

At MQ, we’ve got no interest in sticking with a status quo that causes unnecessary suffering  – so every day our researchers hunt for answers that will drive our understanding of mental illness forward. Here’s just a taste of the groundbreaking work we’re already supporting to help unlock the truth.

1. Preventing suicide

Worldwide each year around 800,000 people take their own lives. That’s a global health crisis. So at MQ we’re funding multiple projects to predict who is at greatest risk from suicide and to work out the best ways to respond.

Using brain scans and an unparalleled amount of suicide data from around the world, we’re looking to pinpoint the social and biological factors that mean some people develop suicidal thoughts – so we can intervene effectively, before suicide destroys lives.   

In another project, we’re investigating a new way to support people who have been taken to hospital after attempting suicide. We know the risk remains high that people could attempt suicide again, but current support is dangerously inconsistent – so we’re exploring how to change that. 

And we’re also looking hard at suicide in children. A huge amount of data exists about young people in schools and about mental health in hospitals – but too often this data remains separate. So we’re bringing it together to identify factors in a child’s life that could cause suicidal thoughts – with the aim of developing ways for parents and schools to take action before it’s too late.

2. Identifying young people at risk

Our research is increasingly focused on young people. 75% of people with a mental health condition first experience it before they are 18. But 7 in 10 young people don’t get the right help at an early age. How can we bridge that gap?

As well as our work looking at suicide in young people, we’re also focusing on depression.

We want to find new ways to screen young people for depression – and help those most at risk before lifelong problems develop. So we’re using existing studies, bringing data that includes biological, imaging and social factors from young people in the UK, Brazil, Nigeria and Nepal to find new insight and new ideas.

3. Getting the right diagnosis faster

Too often, people are forced to wait for an accurate mental health diagnosis or are given the wrong diagnosis.

So our researchers are mapping activity in the brain in various conditions, seeking to identify patterns that are unique to particular illnesses.

To begin with, our findings could end the protracted waiting to discover what’s wrong. But that’s just the beginning: this project could help us understand more about symptoms and treatments too.

In one current project, we’re already looking to move to that next stage – investigating whether strengthening connections between different parts of the brain can help to treat conditions such as addiction and depression. It’s cutting-edge neuroscience, with researchers investigating whether we can stimulate the brain to compensate for cellular issues, rather than using treatments such as drugs to reverse those issues.

4. Predicting which treatments will work – and for who

Mental health treatments often don’t help. People endure months or years of trial-and-error, demonstrating just how far mental health lags behind other illnesses.

Through one study, we want to finally understand which types of anti-depressant are likely to work best for different people. We’re collecting data online from people taking medication and combining it with online tests to assess how people with different characteristics respond. 

In another, we’re analysing the experiences of thousands of people to try and develop an algorithm doctors can use to predict whether people are likely to benefit most from a high- or low-intensity talking therapy. 

And in a third project, we’re looking at how a young person’s background – everything from ethnicity to age to gender to socio-economic status – can affect how they respond to treatment. 

Across this research, our ambition is the same. We want to develop tools that can be used to accurately predict how patients will respond to different drugs. Achieve that and a mental health diagnosis could begin to look completely different.

5. Treating anxiety more quickly

One of the biggest hurdles to overcoming mental illness is the time it can take to get help. But could it be possible to slash waiting lists by developing treatments that work more quickly?

One MQ researcher is testing that theory by looking into a one-hour treatment for anxiety. In early tests, this quick-fire therapy relieved symptoms for a third of patients. Most current anxiety treatments take months. 

And we’re also exploring whether a blood pressure drug could have a powerful impact on anxiety. In every aspect of mental health, there is so much more to learn and explore. 

6. Understanding what causes schizophrenia

Our knowledge of schizophrenia also remains seriously limited. We know it affects 1% of the population. We know it can have a lifelong impact. We know it often arises during adolescence. But we don’t yet fully understand the changes in the brain that cause it or why they happen.

So we’re supporting a range of research studies to target this uncertainty. We’re seeking to uncover the biological processes involved by analysing brain scans and identifying the most relevant genes and molecules.

We’re using state-of-the-art stem cell technology to create 3D cell cultures in lab conditions that mimic parts of the brain, using stem cells taken from people with schizophrenia.

And we’re analysing huge amounts of existing data to pinpoint the psychological and social factors that could cause psychosis in childhood. 

This multifaceted approach enables our researchers to learn from each other – and to move more quickly towards the new knowledge we desperately need.

With research comes hope

Projects like these are just the beginning. At MQ, we’re funding a huge range of research – and with every study, our knowledge grows. So, though, does our recognition of how much more there is to learn, and that’s why our focus never falters.   

The opportunities in front of us are huge, and recognition of the urgent need for research – and of its potential – is finally beginning to grow. 

Together, we can find the answers that will transform our understanding of mental illness, smash the status quo – and transform lives around the world for good.   

Last updated: 27 July 2018

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