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Things I Now Know: Dame Til Wykes

Dame Til Wykes is a Professor of Clinical Psychology and Rehabilitation at King’s College London and was Director, NIHR Clinical Research Network: Mental Health and then Senior Spokesperson on Mental Health for NIHR CRN until 2017. She is now an NIHR Senior Investigator.

As part of this series, we spoke to Til about things in life she's learned, her influences and her inspirations...

As a child, all of my role models were spies and detectives – I liked to get to the bottom of things and solve mysteries. I think this is probably why I ended up as a clinical psychologist and researcher. The real turning point was when, at 12 or 13, I ran out of fiction to read in the local library and was allowed to start reading from the adult non-fiction sections. I picked out a very thick psychology book and decided that was my interest. If I had been taller, I might have been an accountant. 

Something few people know about me is that I write a food blog. We used to take our two daughters out for dinner once a week and every person took it in turns to choose. When they left for university, we worried we’d never go out again! So we set ourselves a challenge: to eat through countries from A-Z at restaurants near to where we lived. Our friends thought it was brilliant, so we set up the blog to review local restaurants. To date we’ve done about 250 reviews!

I think every scientist should start a project with the end goal in mind. I remember the joy of getting my first grant to investigate the cognition of people in long-term psychiatric hospitals. In the decades since, this has evolved into not only understanding the problem, but also developing the treatment, evaluating it and testing it through clinical trials. It’s been incredibly rewarding to see this work come to life. 

I don’t know if Imposter Syndrome ever really goes away. It’s been an obstacle for me throughout my life. I remember being at a conference when I was younger with some of my heroes in the field. That night, instead of joining everyone at the pub, I stayed in because the idea of talking to them made me so anxious. Although I now have no fear, I still sometimes feel intimidated. Looking back, I did a lot of ‘faking it’ to get to where I am. But one thing I have learned is to never pretend that you have all the answers.

We need to discover how to implement findings from mental health research. We know science has the potential to find new ways to prevent, treat and support mental distress – but what good is it if it doesn’t benefit the people who are actually experiencing these problems? We need to share and use what we know to alleviate the distress for those 1 in 4. As researchers, it can’t just be about the next grant or the next paper – it’s about remembering why we do what we do.

I’d like to sit down for a dinner with Barbara Castle. She was a strong woman who worked in the cabinet at a time when there were very few women. We would have something In common. She introduced the Equal Pay Act and I headed up the campaign for a statutotory minimum wage to improve working conditions for women. I patiently waited 19 years to see it enacted but I bet Barbara would have taken much less time. I’d love to know how she persuaded people to make important decisions and balanced their expectations of her. Professionally, I’m often in a room with a lot of grey suits and there’s rarely a queue for the ladies’ toilets – so I’m sure she could have taught me a lot.

There’s a massive mortality gap between people with mental health problems and the rest of the population. I became aware of the severity of this around 10 years ago, when I began working at the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre. We now have the ability to look anonymously at people’s health records and link them to death records, which has shown that mental health can shorten a person’s life by up to 18 years. We can only do something about this by looking at the underlying causes of mortality - starting with their social conditions, particularly poverty. 

MQ is the only research charity in the UK that has a clear remit for improving mental health. It has a clear vision and is a route to involving the public in research, not just for donations but for help in disseminating new evidence and making sure research has a real-life impact. I remember when Cancer Research UK began talking about cancer patients as ‘survivors’ rather than ‘victims’. That word ‘survivor’ refers to the research that has enabled people to live longer, even with a cancer diagnosis. That change of emphasis is important for mental health research too. Although people are now talking about mental health problems, we still need to know there are things we can do that will help - and we need the public to know that too.

There was once a female professor who said you can’t be a scientist and a mother. I don’t think that’s true at all. Although it’s definitely been difficult at times, I’m proud of my career and for pushing the boundaries of mental health research. But I’m also proud of my wonderful daughters who are making their way in the world and whose individual views of the world keep me grounded.

Last updated: 7 August 2019

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