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Launching the MARCH Network: Social, Cultural and Community Assets for Mental Health

By guest blogger, on 5 September 2018

Mental health is the single largest cause of disability in the UK, and it is estimated that almost a quarter of the country’s population are affected by mental health issues each year. So in September 2018, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced £8 million of funding to bring researchers, charities and other organisations together to address important mental health research questions. One of the grants for £1.25m has been awarded to Dr Daisy Fancourt, Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at UCL. Here she tells us about her new programme.

I am delighted to be launching the new MARCH Network. While many approaches to mental health focus on a ‘deficit’ approach, identifying and fixing ‘problems’, this new national network takes an ‘asset-based approach’, which gives prominence to the resources (or ‘assets’) that exist within our communities. This network proposes that these Assets for Resilient Communities lie at the centre of Mental Health (M-ARC-H), and can enhance public mental health and wellbeing, help to prevent mental illness and support those living with mental health conditions.

Specifically, we’re focusing on social, cultural and community assets which include the arts, culture, heritage, libraries, parks, community gardens, allotments, care farms, leisure centres, volunteer associations, social clubs and community groups. There are over 1 million of these assets in the UK and over the past decade there has been a surge in cross-disciplinary research into the impact of these assets on mental health. For example, social psychology research has illuminated the impact of these assets on social capital. Sociology and epidemiology research has demonstrated how these assets provide social support and engagement. Psychobiology and behavioural psychology research has identified specific mechanisms underpinning the effects of these activities. And anthropological and historical research has highlighted challenges in maintaining a sense of community for individuals.

However, despite this progress, research in this area is still in its infancy compared to research into other areas of mental health, and there are several challenges facing researchers. For example, much of the work into community assets is happening in silos: silos based on assets (such as research on arts and mental health happening separately from research on volunteering and mental health); and silos based on disciplines. Additionally, there is a recognised social gradient across community participation but precisely what barriers to access are and how they can be overcome remains poorly understood.

So the MARCH network aims to tackle these challenges through two core workstreams. Workstream 1 focuses on cross-disciplinary research and challenges. We will be exploring two core questions:

  1. What evidence is there, from a cross-disciplinary perspective, for how and why community assets impact on public health and wellbeing and the lives of those living with mental illness, and where are the gaps for future research?
  2. How can we use a cross-disciplinary approach to address methodological challenges in researching the impact of community assets on mental health and to provide meaningful data to different stakeholders and users?

Workstream 2 focuses on two research questions relating to engagement with community assets:

  1. Who amongst the UK population, demographically and geographically, currently engages with community assets and specifically how does participation vary dependent on mental health?
  2. What are the current barriers and enablers to engagement at an individual, organisational and policy level and how can we develop innovative approaches to enhance engagement, especially amongst those who are most vulnerable?

To answer these questions, MARCH will:

  • Bring together international leaders in mental health and community assets research and facilitate the development of meaningful partnerships with policy makers, commissioners and third sector organisations.
  • Run a series of planned ‘core’ activities (including roundtables, consultations and focus groups) to address these identified research challenges leading to a series of major new evidence and methodology reports.
  • Distribute £280,000 of ‘plus’ funds for new research projects and activities for identified research gaps.
  • Host a rich portfolio of impact and engagement activities to translate the research findings into policy and practice, and encourage greater public engagement with community assets.
  • Design and deliver a training and support programme to develop cross-disciplinary skills and expertise amongst the next generation of researchers.

This network is extremely topical right now: it fits in with major developments in mental health such as the roll-out of social prescribing through NHS England and sits well alongside biomedical approaches to mental health. So as we imagine the future of mental health, a strong role for community assets appears inevitable. But we need to ensure that we have robust research underpinning this so that practice does not overtake research. Overall the MARCH network has the aim of transforming our understanding of how community assets can be mobilised to encourage more resilient individuals and communities and moving this area of work from the sidelines of mental health research to the mainstream.

If you are interested in receiving updates or becoming involved, you can register with the network at www.surveymonkey.com/r/M-ARC-H

Investigator team:

  • Dr Daisy Fancourt (Principal Investigator, UCL)
  • Prof Kamaldeep Bhui (Queen Mary University of London)
  • Prof Helen Chatterjee (UCL)
  • Prof Paul Crawford (University of Nottingham)
  • Prof Geoffrey Crossick (School of Advanced Study, University of London)
  • Prof Tia DeNora (University of Exeter)
  • Prof Jane South (Leeds Beckett University).

Partners:

Action for Children, Action for Happiness, Age UK, Arts Council England, Arts Council of Wales, Beyond Skin, Coin Street Community Builders, Community Catalysts Ltd, Crafts Council, Creative Scotland, Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Greenwich Leisure Ltd, Historic England, Libraries Unlimited, Live Music Now, Local Government Association, Mental Health Foundation, MIND, MindOut, Mosaic Youth, Museums Association, National Trust, Natural England, NCVO, NESTA, NHS Health Scotland, People Dancing, Public Health England, Public Health Wales, Rastafari Movement UK, Royal Horticultural Society, Royal Society for Public Health, Sing Up Foundation, Social Farms and Gardens, Social Prescribing Network, The Children’s Society, The Conservation Volunteers, The Eden Project, The Heritage Lottery Fund, The Listening Place, The Reading Agency, The Wildlife Trusts (UK), Think Local Act Personal, Voluntary Arts, What Works Centre for Wellbeing, Wonder Foundation, Youth Music, Youth Music Theatre UK, UK Theatre.

Dr Daisy Fancourt is a Wellcome Research Fellow in the Department of Behavioural Science and Health at UCL specialising in psychoneuroimmunology and social epidemiology. Her research focuses on the relationships between cultural and community participation and health outcomes across the lifespan.

https://iris.ucl.ac.uk/iris/browse/profile?upi=DFANC73