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5 projects bringing together physical and mental health

There is increasing recognition that mental health is linked to physical health. What happens in our minds can affect our bodies – and changes in our bodies can affect how we feel.

Research into these relationships can provide us with vital understanding of these links – bringing with it the potential to revolutionise how we treat, and ultimately prevent, both mental and physical illness.

Right now, we’re funding five projects that could impact both mental and physical healthcare on a global scale: 

1.     Is inflammation the link between people developing depression and heart disease together?

Depression and heart disease are two conditions that commonly occur together. If someone has both, their mental and physical symptoms can worsen, and their life expectancy can be reduced. But we still don’t know how or why these conditions are linked.

Dr Golam Khandaker and Professor Peter Jones will use cutting edge statistics to test if inflammation could be the reason why people develop depression and heart disease together. If they can prove it, their research could open the way for new treatments and prevention strategies for people living with both conditions.

2.     How does hypermobility affect anxiety?

A fifth of the population has hypermobility, where joints move beyond a normal range of motion. People with hypermobility are more sensitive to bodily feelings, such as changes in sensations like heart rate – which can make them more likely to experience anxiety.

Although the link between hypermobility and anxiety has been recognised for some time, no specific targeted treatments are currently available. Dr Jessica Eccles is creating and testing a new therapy aimed at reducing anxiety in people with hypermobility. Her therapy will help people to recognise changes in their bodies and provide tools to reduce the debilitating feelings of panic associated with them. 

3.     Can genetics help us understand what epilepsy has to do with mental health?

Studies have shown that epilepsy, a neurological disorder where people tend to experience seizures, often co-occurs with mental health conditions. It is thought that genetics may hold the key to understanding which people are at greater risk of experiencing both epilepsy and mental illness.

Currently, most genetic research involves Caucasian people. But, in order to discover new risk factors, Dr Symon Kariuki is studying the genetic information of people in sub-Saharan Africa – where there’s a high prevalence of epilepsy, psychosis and other mental health conditions. By widening this research to groups with greater genetic diversity, Symon hopes to uncover critical new findings that could improve mental healthcare on a global scale. 

4.     How does schizophrenia affect a person’s physical health – and can genetics help?

On average, people with schizophrenia die 20 years earlier than the general population – but we don’t have a full understanding of how the condition affects our physical health. To tackle this, researchers have been trying to understand the links between genetic risk factors for schizophrenia and physical health. This could enable us to create more informed interventions – and ultimately improve people’s life expectancy. 

Dr James Walters and his team at Cardiff University are linking the world’s largest genetic samples on people with schizophrenia with NHS data for the first time. Through this, James hopes to determine which physical health problems, like cardiovascular disease and obesity, are associated with genetic factors in people living with schizophrenia. This new evidence could inform vital treatments for schizophrenia and help identify people with the condition who are at risk of developing serious physical illnesses.

5.     How does arthritis affect mental health?

Half a million people in the UK live with rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that causes joint inflammation, pain, stiffness and fatigue. Around a third of these people also experience mental illness. But, while treatments for arthritis help to relieve physical symptoms, many people experience ongoing mental health problems which are not addressed through current treatment plans. A more personalised treatment approach – that targets both physical and mental health symptoms – could significantly improve people’s quality of life. 

Dr Sam Norton at King’s College London is creating an app to help healthcare professionals track their patients’ symptoms, so they can consider a wider range of related issues – including mental health problems – when treating patients who have arthritis. This will make sure that people receive the most effective treatments and make the most of the precious time available during appointments.

Through research, we've seen extraordinary advances in how we understand and treat physical health conditions – but for many people the story doesn’t stop there.

These projects are making ground-breaking links between our physical and mental health, which could transform the lives of millions. The need is urgent – and the potential is limitless.

Last updated: 10 May 2019

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