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6 areas that could be key to understanding how to prevent and treat mental illness

The development of mental illness is complex and multifaceted – and understanding how to treat and prevent it is taking some the best and brightest minds.

With the right investment, scientists have been able to make important progress.

They’ve found there are specific factors – from vitamins to the environment we live in – that, if addressed, could help to transform mental health for the better.

This was an important theme at our Mental Health Science Meeting last month, where leading scientists from a variety of backgrounds outlined promising areas to take on. Six important themes emerged:   

1 . Getting the right vitamins and minerals


When our bodies are developing in pregnancy they need certain vitamins and minerals – or micronutrients – to grow healthily. Our brains have the same needs. Professor Ezra Susser has seen exciting potential that particular micronutrients like folic acid have to prevent schizophrenia and autism if they’re taken in pregnancy. Our Fellow Dr Joshua Roffman, is building on Ezra’s work to increase understanding of folic acid and its link to schizophrenia.

2. Support in pregnancy

pregnant woman

Evidence suggests that providing mental health support to women in pregnancy who are facing mental health problems could have a positive effect on future generations. Professor Myrna Weissman found that children whose parents had depression are almost three times as likely to have a mental health condition. Knowing this link enables us to focus on interventions early-on, such as talking to pregnant women about depression and ensuring that they get the help they need if they are affected.

3. Combatting stress

brain scan on ipad

We know that stress takes its toll on our wellbeing, but what has science revealed about its impact on our mental health? Professor Frances Rice has drawn parallels between stress and depression – revealing that people who experience stressful life events and live in poverty were more likely to develop the condition. Professor Carmen Sandi is exploring the processes that are going on in the brain when it is put under stress. She found that stress appears to cause behaviours like abnormal aggression and a lack of fear that can be found in some mental health conditions. With these findings, it appears minimizing stress could have a profound influence on reducing someone’s likelihood to develop mental health problems.

4. Understanding our genes

genes image

 Genes hold the ‘code’ (or instructions) for all living things. But what do they tell us about our likelihood to develop a mental illness? It is a hot topic in science. Professor Jonathan Mill has been investigating how certain genes are ‘switched on’ in brains of people who had been diagnosed schizophrenia compared to ‘healthy’ brains. Understanding the significance of these activated genes is an important area to explore in the development of better personalised interventions.

5. Taking on bullying

child who looks sad

Studies show that young people who are bullied have an increased risk of developing mental health problems – and that these can last for many years into adulthood. To reduce these problems, it makes sense to try to put a stop to bullying. So where to focus? Professor Louise Arsenault makes the case that we can actually predict which children are most likely to get bullied. If a child is maltreated at home, for example, they are at a far higher risk of being victimized by their peers. Our Fellow, Dr Jean-Baptiste Pingault’s, project will build upon this evidence to explore biological risk-factors causes of bullying. The work of these scientists may identify those most at risk of bullying, enabling us to create scientifically-based interventions to reduce it from occurring.

6. And finally… Spending time around nature

beautiful woodland

Enjoy the countryside? There is building evidence to suggest it has a positive impact on mental health. Professor Andreas Lindenberg looked into the impact that living in a city had on the brain and mental health, he found there's a correlation between living in a city and your liklihood to develop schizophrenia. A study he reviewed showed that being around nature caused people to engage less in ‘rumination’ – passive and repetitive thinking on one’s own experiences, feelings, and thoughts, and the causes and consequences of these.

Only through investing in research will we be able to fully understand how to treat, and even prevent, mental illness – find out about the projects we’re funding to take this on. 

Last updated: 28 April 2017

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