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Psychological treatments: much done, much to do

The development of effective and evidence-based psychological treatments is one of the major research triumphs of the last decades. 

At a time when the development of drugs for mental health treatments has almost stalled, psychological therapies have become an effective and efficient intervention to tackle mental health conditions – and are transforming lives, every day.

But for all these important developments, we know that significant progress still needs to be made.

A recent report by the ‘We need to talk’ coalition found waiting times for these treatments are far too high – with 1 in 10 people waiting more than a year to receive treatment. And they also found options are limited – with more than half of those surveyed stating they weren’t provided with choice in which types of therapies they received.

These issues are underpinned by a major lack of scientific knowledge. Put simply, we don’t know enough about how and why psychological treatments work, and what works for whom. This means not enough people are able to get treatments that work for them.

The Government’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) has been a huge success in rolling out transformative therapies across the UK – but the evidence still shows that too many people are left without a successful outcome from the treatments they receive.

At MQ, we believe that science is fundamental in helping us to address this.

Today we’ve announced £1million of funding for five pioneering new research projects to improve psychological treatments – part of our annual PsyIMPACT award.

These projects are all aimed at developing and testing psychological interventions based on rigorous scientific theory. Specifically focusing on the development or relapse of mental illness, they are exploring new approaches and technologies which could help us improve effectiveness and widen access to much-needed services.

For example, at the University of Sussex, scientists are working on an interoception project to help those living with autism better interpret – and thereby manage – their anxiety.

It works by helping people to manage the stress they feel in response to unexpected physical changes, like an increase in their heart rate, and provides ways for them to better judge these. And to understand exactly how the treatment works, and who it’s most effective on, they’re also using a series of scans to identify which areas of the brain respond to the treatment.

Anxiety affects 1 in 4 of those living with autism, so if successful, would be a significant help to thousands of individuals. But it doesn’t stop there either – if the treatment is effective then the team plan to develop an app version that patients and therapists can use in clinical settings anywhere. The result would be a rapid increase in access, meaning more people can get help faster. And the treatment could be highly targeted too on those that we know will respond.

Another project we’re supporting at the University of Ghent has similar potential. Ernst Koster and his team are responding to previous research which has shown the links between attention and depression. This found when attention is more easily drawn towards negative information this can cause negative mood, make it harder to control emotions and increase reactions to stress.  

In this study, participants with a previous experience of depression will see a series of positive and negative sentences related to their own emotions. They are encouraged to generate positive sentences and see instant feedback whether they focus on the right information (positive words) to do so. In a previous test, participants focused more on the positive words as a result of this feedback – and people’s ability to manage their emotions improved.

Now the team want to see if this eye-tracking technology can have a similar effect on people with mental health problems – improving attention and decreasing the symptoms of depression.

And excitingly, because this project also involves developing and testing an online version of the technique – with the mouse cursor used instead of an eye-tracking camera – it has the potential to be scaled up to help more individuals and rapidly expand access to treatment.  

These are just two of the many exciting projects we’re funding in this area. And as we grow as a charity, we hope to be able to go even further in funding ground-breaking science, so that more people can receive better, more effective psychological treatments.

The one thing we can all be clear on is that whilst there is much to be excited about, and much already achieved, there is much more to still do.

Last updated: 24 August 2016

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© MQ: Transforming mental health 2016 | Registered charity in England / Wales: 1139916 & Scotland: SC046075 | Company number: 7406055