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“As a society, we’re failing people who self-harm”

Professor of Psychology and MQ researcher Rory O’Connor describes the frustration that’s led him to swear to take on mental health problems. Join the movement

I did a poll on Twitter recently, asking my followers why they thought funding for mental health research is so much less than funding for physical health research – about £8 in the UK annually for each person affected, compared to £178 for each person affected by cancer. 

One of the main themes that came back was people saying there’s just nothing you can do about mental ill-health. As someone who’s worked in mental health research for 23 years, I find that idea very, very frustrating. 

To say there’s nothing you can do is hugely damaging and obviously not true – and we have to challenge that idea. I work primarily on reducing the risk of suicide and self-harm, and there is good evidence of psychological therapies that can make an important difference. 

With funding from MQ, I’m currently researching whether a type of support developed in the US can help to reduce repeated suicide attempts. 

Initial findings with US military veterans have been really promising, and we’re now doing a pilot randomised clinical trial to find out whether this approach can play a role in the UK, where suicide is the biggest cause of death of 20-34-year-olds.  

It’s a small trial, but if the findings are promising a full-scale trial will follow, with the potential to have a huge impact. People often say that psychological interventions only have small effects, but small effects, when considered at a public health level, save lives. Aspirin has a small effect too, but look at the difference that it can make to heart disease. 

I think it’s really important to get the message out there that suicide can be prevented and mental health problems can be treated. But it’s also true that we desperately need to continue building the evidence base of what we understand about why people self-harm and attempt suicide.  

We know that at least one in ten adolescents will self-harm, for instance, and that before the age of 16 around 20% of girls will self-harm.

But the current evidence base of what works in terms of intervening with self-harm among children and young people remains limited. The sad reality is that there has been insufficient funding for new treatments for children and adolescents.

So people aren’t receiving the support they need, and we’re talking about large numbers of people here. Self-harm can affect any one of us – and people are having to live with the consequences of us as a society failing those who self-harm. 

We need to tailor mental health treatments and interventions to particular groups of the population – such as young people. To do so, we need to engage with the people who are vulnerable; we’re not going to get anywhere otherwise. 

So we have to involve people with lived experience far more in research.

And the funding needs to be available to study particular population groups, so we can better understand what works for whom and when. 

We need to take gender into consideration in studies about suicide. We need to investigate what’s really suitable for young men as well as young women. We can’t and we shouldn’t generalise and assume that what works for some people works for everyone. 

One thing we do know, though, is that most people who experience mental health problems will experience them first as a young person or adolescent. If we can do more to support young people and to provide them with the skills and resources to manage the challenges of life, we may be able to prevent a lifetime of misery. How we tackle disadvantage, deprivation and early life adversity is also key to suicide prevention. 

That includes giving children and young people much more support when they experience trauma early in life, so they get the protection they need at that crucial stage of development. 

But the only way lasting change will happen is if we urgently prioritise mental health funding. The lack of funding it gets now is an absolute disgrace. 

I am seeing positive signs – stigma is being challenged, the UK Government has said it is prioritising mental health and there has been some movement in terms of funding.

But there needs to be much more progress, because there is so much we don’t know – and there’s so much we could do, if only the evidence was available.   

Last updated: 27 January 2017

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