Why did you choose to do research into mental health?
I studied psychology at university because I was fascinated by the brain and human behaviour. I spent a year working in the MRC Centre of Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics as part of a professional placement and this stimulated my interest in mental health research.
Who inspired/inspires you?
During my five years in the department, I have recruited and assessed over a hundred participants who have psychosis and/or mood disorders. Hearing their stories and speaking to them about the challenges they face is a powerful reminder of the research that still needs to be done to improve the lives of patients.
What are you currently working on?
My research does not focus on a single disorder but looks across mental health disorders. Many disorders share common symptoms or have overlapping risk factors. I am working on a project that is aiming to create a large cross-disorder resource containing clinical and genetic information from people with many different disorders, which we hope will provide new insights into the causes of mental health problems. I am particularly interested in the relationship between mental health problems and mental abilities, such as attention, memory and problem solving (cognition). People who have experienced mental health problems sometimes report difficulty with their cognition. These problems can have a significant impact on their ability to live independently, socialise and return to work even if they are no longer experiencing symptoms of their mental health condition. The causes of impaired cognition are not fully understood and my research aims to understand how cognition is affected by diagnosis, symptoms, medication and other factors.
How does your research inform your clinical practice and vice versa?
I am not a clinician but it is hoped that my research will inform clinical practice and improve patient outcomes. Cognitive impairments are a cause of long-term disability for some people with mental health problems but there is currently a lack of suitable assessments for use in clinics. As part of our new research project, I will be working with health professionals, patients and carers to discover what assessments and feedback would be most useful and develop a new brief assessment.
What changes have you seen in attitudes towards mental health during your career?
Things have definitely improved but we still have a way to go. There has been an increase in media campaigns (notably on social media platforms) raising awareness of mental health problems and people are more open to talking about their own experiences, particularly regarding depression and anxiety. However, there is still a lot of stigma and misconceptions surrounding disorders like schizophrenia.
What do you think the key challenges are for mental health?
Funding remains a challenge for mental health research despite psychiatric disorders accounting for a large proportion of disability and premature mortality worldwide. Another key challenge for both research and clinical settings is diagnosis. Currently diagnosis is based on observed symptoms but the causes of these symptoms are poorly understood. There are overlapping symptoms between different disorders and it is also common to have co-occurring mental health problems. It is hoped that if we can understand more about the underlying biology that leads to specific symptoms then we can improve diagnosis and develop new treatments.
What advice would you give to people starting out in a career in mental health research?
I think it’s really important to meet people with lived experience of the disorder you are researching, either by involving them in your research or through voluntary placements. It helps you not to lose sight of the big picture, as ultimately we are doing this research to help people by improving prevention, diagnosis and treatment.