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What motherhood has taught me about mental health research

Ahead of Mother’s Day, we spoke to Dr Bronwyn Graham, an MQ-funded scientist who has recently become a mum to 6-month-old Henry. 

We asked if being a mother has impacted how she views mental health – and what her hopes are for her son’s generation. 

Bronwyn’s MQ-funded project is looking into why women are twice as likely to develop anxiety compared to men. Her research is building evidence which suggests that sex hormones like oestrogen, that naturally fluctuate in women, play an important part in how well someone responds to anxiety treatment.

Has becoming a mother impacted your views on mental health research?

I think that becoming a mother has taught me about patience and the value of baby steps. My son is just 6 months old and he learnt how to sit up about a month ago, and he’s recently learnt how to pick up two things and bang them together. 

These things are just incredibly small steps – he’s got such a long way to go. But when he learnt how to sit, he opened up such a big world for him, he can see the world from a completely different vantage point. 

In mental health, we’ve learnt how to sit and we’ve learnt how to bang things together and they may seem like very small steps, but in and of themselves they have opened up a whole new layer of opportunity to improve the quality of people’s lives. They are providing the foundation to make even more important advancements in the future.

So we may be sitting now, but one day we’ll be crawling – we’ll soon be walking.

When Henry grows up – what do you hope mental health research will have achieved?

I really hope that we have much better ability to screen people early on – to make really strong predictions about who is vulnerable and who isn’t.

I think what’s happening at the moment is that we are seeing people coming to the system in their 50s and 60s and they’ve very often had these problems throughout their whole life. 

There are two problems with that: one is, sometimes we can fix them but it means that they have spent the vast majority of their lives living with a problem that was ultimately treatable decades ago, and that’s really sad. The other thing is that we know with all illness, the earlier you can identify a problem the better the prognosis is – the better the chances are that that person will be able to live a quality life – I really hope that that’s something we can improve upon in the very near future. 

What are the main challenges and opportunities facing your son’s generation?

It’s interesting because I think that the challenges are the same as the opportunities.

We’re living in a completely different social context to the time when the vast majority of mental health research that’s given us our understanding of mental health occurred. What that means is that Henry and other people of his generation are facing a social context where we don’t really understand what the mental health ramifications are. We need to start taking those things like the rise of social media into consideration. We don’t really have a great understanding of how that’s influencing the mental health of this generation – people are starting to look at that but it’s really something that we need to focus on.

The flip side of that is that those sorts of challenges can also very good opportunities. If Henry grows up and is living in a remote community and develops depression, he can hop on his laptop and have a Skype session with a psychologist. You would have never been able to do that before. E-health is one of the really exciting developments that we’ve seen emerge in the last 10 years.

The other thing is that Henry will be growing up in one of the most tolerant and accepting societies, particularly in respects to mental health. We’ve seen a change with the stigma associated with mental health even in my short lifetime – and I can’t imagine how much that’s going to progress throughout Henry’s lifetime. 

I think particularly being a male, traditionally men don’t come forward and don’t report symptoms of ill-health. I’m really hoping that by the time Henry grows up he will be at a point where he sees absolutely no problem coming forward and acknowledging that he needs help. And I think that will happen.

Last updated: 24 March 2017

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