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What we learnt at the 2019 Mental Health Science Meeting

Last week, nearly 300 researchers gathered in London for our annual Mental Health Science Meeting. It was a fantastic couple of days, jam-packed with sessions from world-leading researchers, exploring the latest ways to understand, treat and prevent mental illness.

If you’re keen to find more about what happened at the event, you can catch up on the live blog. Here we bring you some of our highlights and touch on some of the big themes that came up during the meeting. 

It pays to think long-term

The theme for this year’s meeting was “Transforming mental health throughout the life course”, and many of the talks touched upon our understanding of the mental health of people - both young and old.

Several scientists talked about their work using data from ‘longitudinal studies’, where a group of people are followed for many years to see how their health changes over time. Jessica Agnew-Blais shared some of her work on how Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder affects both children and adults. Becky Mars used the ‘Children of the 90s’ study in her research on how suicidal thoughts and behaviour develop. And Radhika Kandaswarmy used a study of twins to show that stressful childhood events leave a fingerprint on our DNA. All this work helps us to understand the origins of mental illness and provides clues on how to prevent it developing in the first place. 

Think about the environment, not just the person

When it comes to our health, we need to think about the bigger picture. Many of the factors that influence our wellbeing are beyond our control, and instead come from the environment and people around us.

Clare Llewellyn’s talk on the link between obesity and mental illness illustrated this point perfectly. Too many people see obesity as a ‘choice’ that an individual makes. But all kinds of things influence how a person behaves - including poverty, the availability of fast food shops, outdoor spaces for play, and food regulations. Clare said these factors “conspire together” to make it difficult for people to make healthy decisions – which can then affect their physical and mental health.

Encouraging us to look at the bigger picture was also the aim of Michael Ungar’s talk on resilience in young people. Too often we think that the only thing young people from difficult backgrounds need to succeed is their own inner strength and determination. But this view ignores how much the people and the environment around them affects the chances of their story having a fairy-tale ending. We need to make sure we’re providing young people with the support they need to achieve and maintain good mental health.

There’s no such thing as ‘one size fits all’

It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating – everyone is different, and so there is no ‘one size fits all’ for how we might prevent and treat mental illness. For example, one common approach to tackling loneliness is to bring people together to meet in groups – but Tim Matthews pointed out that whilst this may work for some people, others feel just as lonely in a crowd as they do on their own.

Equally, when it comes to treatment, it’s not enough for doctors to assume that they know what’s best for anyone under their care. Bill Fulford stressed that decisions about treatment options for someone facing mental illness must take that person’s individual wishes and desires into account. Only then can people get the support they really need.

Researchers need to talk to each other more

The diversity of the research presented at the Mental Health Science Meeting showed how researchers are tackling mental illness from all angles. But to really build a 360-degree understanding of mental illness, experts from all areas of science must collaborate more.

Joshua Gordon, Director of the US National Institute of Mental Health, mentioned this idea a lot when setting out his organisation’s priorities for mental health research. From neuroscientists unpicking the wiring of our brains, to computer scientists scouring through masses of data, to researchers finding ways to prevent suicide – everyone needs to break out of their bubbles and work together.

Mind the (implementation) gap

One thing we need to tackle if we are to make the biggest impact for people living with mental illness is known as the ‘implementation gap’ – how we put good ideas into practice. Sonia Johnson focussed on this in her keynote speech, explaining that far too often, interventions which we know are effective take too long to be implemented into day-to-day care.

In the Panel Discussion, Sarah Carr said that to close this gap and make sure that everyone can benefit from the results of mental health research, scientists need to be thinking how their work might be implemented in the real world as early as possible.  

No research about me, without me

People affected by mental illness have so much to contribute to research. Their involvement can help ensure that the project really addresses the problems they face, and the solutions are tailored to them as individuals.

Sarah Carr warned that this involvement should not be ‘tokenistic’ and should go beyond just having someone with mental illness on an advisory panel. The best way people with experience of mental illness can contribute to research is by working alongside scientists to design and run projects together.

This ‘co-production’ of research can have great results, as Ellen Townsend demonstrated. Her team worked with young people who self-harm to develop a method which allows them to explore their feelings and behaviours. The researchers gained valuable insight into the chain of events which can lead someone to self-harm – and at the same time, the participants said they found it helpful to gain some clarity on their own thought patterns.

We still have so much work to do to improve the lives of people at risk or affected by mental illness, both right now and in the future. But every year, the Mental Health Science Meeting reminds us that we are making progress all the time – and renews the mental health research community’s drive to keep pushing forward.

Last updated: 15 February 2019

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