Sinéad Morrison is a PhD student with the Experiences of CHildren with cOpy number variants (ECHO)study
Why did you choose to do research into mental health?
I have always been really fascinated with mental health from a young age, and I can pinpoint this to the moment it was explained to me that the churning feeling I experienced when worried about something was actually originating in my brain, not my stomach. I couldn’t believe that something that felt so physical could be caused by the way I was thinking and the emotions I was feeling. This really ignited a passion for understanding the brain and mental health.
My mum as a psychiatric nurse, owned a few textbooks about psychiatric disorders and I would sneak into her room and pore over these for as long as I could despite not understanding much (a fairly lame activity for a 12 year old). I decided to study Psychology at University, and got my own textbooks (it doesn’t quite carry the same thrill when you are tested on the contents). However, I discovered that I really loved doing research, and so applied for PhDs in mental health research.
Who inspired/inspires you?
My mum, who is a psychiatric nurse and always told the most fascinating stories about her time on the wards and also impressed on me the lack of resources and treatments available for people experiencing mental health issues.
The network of campaigners for recognition and treatment of the genetic syndrome I study (22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome) are truly inspiring for their tireless work to ensure their families receive the best possible care, in a world where most people have not heard of the syndrome. They and the families themselves constantly remind me how important this research is.
What are you currently working on?
We are really lucky to have a fantastic cohort of children and adolescents with a genetic syndrome called 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome; the ECHO study. We have been following up with these families around every two years. Our group has previously found high rates of mental health problems such as ADHD, anxiety and unusual experiences such as hallucinations in these children, and I am looking at how these may change over time and possibly be linked to learning abilities like attention and memory.
How does your research inform your (clinical) practice and vice versa?
Families and clinicians often do not know what to expect as children with 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome grow older, and so this research is essential to providing them with more knowledge on this, and putting things into place early to ensure that there is support available.
What changes have you seen in attitudes towards mental health during your career?
Attitudes towards mental health are changing for the better. Stigma is decreasing around talking about mental health, and many more people are opening up about their own struggles with mental health which is fantastic. However, we still have a way to go before discrimination based on mental health is completely eradicated. Research into mental health can help dispel harmful myths; for example, that people with mental health problems could be dangerous or violent, when in reality they are more at risk of experiencing violence. This helps reduce judgement of those with mental health problems, and therefore encourages people to disclose these problems and others to be more accepting.
What do you think the key challenges are for mental health?
I think one of the key challenges is the complexity of the problems we study in mental health research, and the difficulty in integrating the biological and social factors that interact in so many ways. However, there is no way as a single researcher you could look at every factor which contributes to mental health. This is why collaboration is so essential, because by working together we can start piecing together the pieces of this big jigsaw!
We have seen great examples of this in the past few years with different research groups even from different countries pooling together their samples to maximise the chance of uncovering possible contributors to mental health.
What advice would you give to people starting out in a career in mental health research?
Involve the views of the people that you are hoping to benefit, as they will have the best insight into the problems they face and fantastic ideas for areas of research.
Also, try to talk about your research to as many people as possible – it’s difficult boiling it all down into a digestible format sometimes but this really helps get your head around what the main aims of your research are and not get too focussed on your own project without considering how it fits into the wider field.