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The women working to tackle mental illness

Today, we are championing our female researchers to celebrate International Women’s Day.

Through our research, we aim to support the best and brightest minds, because we know that if we want to solve the big questions in mental health – we musn’t settle for less. 

We are pleased to be supporting the careers and work of so many accomplished women in the field of mental health science. They are tackling some of the most perplexing questions of mental illness and represent the research leaders of tomorrow. We celebrate their achievements and encourage other scientists, both female and male to emulate their lead.

So, it’s time to meet our researchers to find out what inspired them to pursue a career in mental health research and what they’re working on. 

Dr. Bronwyn Graham, University of New South Wales, Australia

Despite the fact that women are more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, much research into treatments is actually based on studies involving males – so may not represent what will work in a female population.

I fell in love with the process of discovery

Dr. Graham’s work examines whether natural fluctuations of sex hormones, like oestrogen, affects the success of psychological therapies in treating anxiety. With this knowledge, psychological therapies can be better tailored to women and delivered at a time when we know they will work best. 

Dr. Colette Hirsch, King’s College London, UK

From an early age I was really interested in becoming a clinical psychologist. It was later that I thought, in addition to helping people overcome their difficulties in the clinic, I also want to be doing research to improve treatments for them in future.

Negative, repetitive thinking, also called ‘rumination’ is a common symptom of depression and anxiety. However, people with high levels of worry and rumination often do not get better through traditional CBT therapy and it can interfere heavily with their day-to-day lives. 

In her previous work, Dr. Hirsch identified the thought processes that may underlie these thinking processes. Her MQ project hopes to specifically target these through computer-based therapy. This could be a major breakthrough for treating these stubborn symptoms, which can have such a debilitating impact on people’s lives.

Dr Ethel Nakimuli-Mpungu, Makerere University, Uganda

“My mother inspired my career in research. When I graduated as a doctor, she said to me; ‘Ethel, I want you to be a doctor. But I want you to be a doctor that makes a difference to people’s lives.’ Those words led me on a journey for a way to do this.”

For too long, mental and physical health conditions have been treated in isolation of each other, with severe consequences. In northern Uganda, Dr. Nakimuli-Mpungu noted that people living with depression as well as HIV were less likely to look after their health and take their HIV-antiretroviral medication.

Dr. Nakimuli-Mpungu’s project is tackling the challenge head on. She is training HIV healthcare workers, who visit people with HIV in their communities, to also treat their depression through a new effective form of group therapy.

In an initial trial, she showed that it can significantly reduce levels of depression. Now she is trialing it on a much larger scale – reaching thousands of people who would not otherwise have access to help. And it lays the groundwork for new cost-effective solutions to improving access to treatments across the world.

Dr. Nakimuli-Mpungu’s work and progress was also recognised earlier this year when she received the Elsevier Foundation Award for Women in Science.  

Dr. Andrea Reinecke, University of Oxford, UK

Dr. Andrea Reinecke is developing a one-hour, single session treatment for anxiety. In previous work, Dr. Reinecke has found this one-session Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to be successful in alleviating symptoms of panic disorder in a third of patients after a month. Now she’s looking to see how to make this even better.

I became very interested in how the brain processes information.

Dr. Reinecke is testing whether a blood pressure drug could be used in combination with the single-session CBT to develop an effective, ultra-brief, stand-alone treatment for anxiety disorder. Not only would this help improve recovery for people with anxiety disorders, but it could also mean many more people were also able to access help. 

Dr. Susanne Ahmari, University of Pittsburgh, USA

“I became passionate about research because it enables us to ask and answer questions that were previously unknown. I wanted to figure out things about the brain that would allow us to help people.”

Our current lack of understanding of the factors that contribute to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) mean that treatments are falling short and people are suffering. Without understanding what underlies the behaviours associated with OCD we can’t answer vital questions like, what is the best way to treat OCD? How can we identify people at risk of developing OCD? Can we prevent OCD?

Dr. Ahmari’s work is helping to fill some of these gaps. Her project uses a cutting edge technology called optogenetics, where light is used to turn specific cells in the brain ‘on’ or ‘off’, in a mouse-model of OCD. Her work will pinpoint new treatments targets that reduce the symptoms of OCD.

Dr. Helen Fisher, King’s College London, UK

“I really wanted to get in and understand what was going on in psychotic symptoms, and that’s what made me decide to go into research.”

Psychotic symptoms in children, such as hearing and seeing things that others do not, are far more common than generally recognised. These often do not lead to mental illness, but can be a predictor of developing it later in life.

Dr. Fisher’s project analyses data from three large studies of children in the UK that were conducted over a long period of time. These include information on adverse life events and social factors. She then compares this information with their biological samples, to see if there are genetic changes taking place too. By building a better picture of what factors increase of decrease the risk of developing psychosis, we are better equipped to identify and help children at risk.

Last updated: 26 July 2017

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