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Starting a PhD in the middle of a pandemic by Humma Andleeb

By iomh, on 18 March 2021

profile photo of phd student humma andleeb

This is a series of blogs about my experience of the UCL-Wellcome Mental Health Science PhD programme. It will cover applying for the programme, the interview and lead up to enrolment stage of the programme as well as my experience of the programme and my PhD. I am publishing these blogs for prospective students in response to the queries I have received about the programme in response to my Twitter thread  on successfully securing a place on the programme.

Over the last year, all of us have had to drastically alter our lives in some way, whether that be home-schooling your children, working from home, practising extensive social distancing and hygiene in public spaces or staying at home for extended periods of time.

Just days before the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, I had been offered a place on the UCL Wellcome PhD programme in Mental Health Science. Amongst the chaos, with the ever-extending lockdown, it was hard to plan or think about the future not knowing what would unfold over the coming months. I was increasingly anxious as people started losing their jobs facing unemployment without financial support, here I was about to leave a secure job to pursue a PhD. Honestly, I had to question whether it was the right time to take on a PhD and whether I was taking too much of a risk in the circumstances.

As the months followed and I was asked to shield whilst the pandemic picture grew much worse all over the world, my mental health took a rapid decline and my motivation dropped to an all-time low. Not being able to visualise the future and whether I would be able to take on the PhD if I would still be required to shield was causing me a lot of stress. Thankfully, the programme committee reassured me that they would find a way to accommodate the situation whatever it would be come September. Encouragingly, we were able to have a relatively relaxed summer and things seemed to be looking bright leading up to the start date but, quite suddenly, things started to worsen as schools opened in September and universities were set to open campuses for students. Nevertheless, I handed in my notice and began preparing for this new and once-in-a-lifetime venture.

Before the start, we were told by UCL that most teaching and work would be delivered online unless it was absolutely necessary to be on campus (for example, if you needed to be in a lab), as undergraduate students were to be prioritised for on-campus learning until at least January, but we would have the opportunity to meet the rest of the cohort and the committee at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (ICN) for our weekly skills seminar (social distancing regulations in place, of course).

Considering all that was happening, it was helpful that we had the month of October to scope out potential rotation projects for the year with potential supervisors on the programme but still have the opportunity to attend a weekly seminar at the ICN. Knowing that most of our studies would be virtual until January (at the earliest), I made the decision to move back to my family home in the Midlands so I could spend time with my grandma and family (plus the bonus of saving money on rent!). I commuted to London for the weekly seminars and lunch with the rest of the cohort. This was short-lived as COVID-19 cases began to rise rapidly and the skills seminars switched to virtual when the November lockdown was announced, just as we started our first rotations. My first rotation was using existing datasets so could all be done virtually but as the rotations are short (10-12 weeks long), most projects were unable to offer data collection opportunities and if they were, these were currently all being done virtually. Essentially, everyone was in the same boat.

Overall, it was daunting starting a PhD in the middle of a global pandemic, especially in the context of giving up a well-paid job when unemployment was rising, but it was a now-or-never decision. I truly felt like I was at the stage in my career to take this on professionally, so it was a risk that was worth taking for me! My former colleagues at McPin were incredibly supportive in helping me navigate this change and gave me the validation I needed that this was something that was right for me. It really helped being able to meet with the rest of the cohort on Zoom and then in person weekly (especially great that we all got on so well). We immediately made a WhatsApp group to keep in touch and also met virtually on Zoom for the skills seminars. In my opinion, the most difficult thing has been working with a lab group that you work with every day but never getting the opportunity to meet with them. You end up in a sort of awkward position of having spent a lengthy amount of time being part of the lab, but there being this barrier of not knowing someone’s persona in real life or fully understanding the lab banter that you have never physically been a part of.

Interview for the UCL-Wellcome 4-year PhD Programme in Mental Health Science by Humma Andleeb

By iomh, on 2 March 2021

profile photo of phd student humma andleeb

This is a series of blogs about my experience of the UCL-Wellcome Mental Health Science PhD programme.  It will cover applying for the programme, the interview and lead up to enrolment stage of the programme as well as my experience of the programme and my PhD. I am publishing these blogs for prospective students in response to the queries I have received about the programme in response to my Twitter thread  on successfully securing a place on the programme.

Having applied to the UCL-Wellcome Mental Health PhD programme at the end of January 2020 (read my blog post on applying here), I was shortlisted for an interview, much to my surprise. We were told that we would be presented with a 30-minute task that would consist of a series of abstracts and the interviewee would be asked to summarise the abstract in lay language for the general public. Following the task, a 30-minute interview would take place with a panel consisting of members of the committee.

At the time, COVID-19 was beginning to spread rapidly especially in London and we were given the opportunity to have a virtual interview or have a socially-distanced in-person interview. I opted for an in-person interview, due to personal preference, but as things escalated the weekend before the interviews were due to take place, we were all given the opportunity to have a virtual interview and reassured that there would be no impact on our outcomes if we did opt for a virtual interview. I decided to go ahead with the original plans and have an in-person interview.

Preparing for the interview

In preparation for my interview, I revisited my application form and looked up some online resources on how to prepare for a PhD interview. Looking back at my application, I focussed on areas that might interest the panel and areas that I could potentially expand on at interview. Using online resources that provided guidance and feedback from interview experiences helped to guide me in preparing for questions that I may be asked relating to the programme and my application as well as think about questions that I had about the programme and the university. However, I noticed that resources online tend to focus on specific PhDs with a specific supervisor and assume that you already have a thesis title; therefore, it’s important to note that this programme is different, in that it is a 1+3 programme and is for a generic Mental Health Science PhD, so there is less need to focus on specific background research in one area. The focus of the programme being interdisciplinary also comes into this, as collaboration across the three main themes (Mechanism, Population and Intervention) is heavily encouraged and forms the basis for the programme.

The interview

On the day of the interview, I got the bus from my South London home to Bloomsbury and walked to the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience where the interview was due to take place. As someone who is either very late or very early, I decided to make a conscious effort to be VERY early, so I arrived before the building had even opened! Thankfully, I didn’t have to stand outside for very long before the receptionist arrived, and I had plenty of time to look through the notes I had made in the foyer area (after sanitizing my hands of course!). The panel members began arriving and there was an interview scheduled before mine, but time went really quickly as I skimmed through my preparation notes and before I knew it, it was time to start the task. Whilst working on the task, I was anxious that I’d forget all my preparation for the main interview so it was a plus that all that was required of me was to summarise the abstract (I’m not sure I could have done anything more complex than that!).

Due to the nature of the unfolding pandemic, some of the panellists joined the interview via Zoom and others were there in person, but the room was set up to ensure that we could all communicate and see each other. Another thing that immediately stood out to me was that there was no daunting row of mean-looking panellists sitting across from the interviewee, ready to pounce on you. Instead, they all introduced themselves and gave some insight into their role on the programme and their job before outlining how the interview would go.

The interview itself felt like a conversation and all of my worries disappeared once I settled into the atmosphere and noticed the welcoming nature of the panel. Usually, I’d want the interview to end as soon as possible, but in this interview, I could have carried on talking about how great the programme was and its potential in encouraging collaborative research in mental health science. I was able to express my passion for interdisciplinary research, my previous research experience and my wider interests and hobbies. It was evident from the discussions that this programme is not just about academic achievement but also about ensuring students are well supported and trained in areas that will help shape our futures as mental health researchers and people.

I went in thinking of the panel as my colleagues and I felt like that was reciprocated by the panel. I left the interview on a bit of a (natural) high but, after a while, started kicking myself for some of the responses I gave – and things I had prepared that I did not have time to mention. But this is completely normal and there’s never enough time to share everything, so I was sure I did the best I could possibly have done and about an hour later, I forgot what had even been discussed! I had emphasised all I could to highlight why I felt I was an ideal student for this programme, now the decision was in the hands of the committee… all I could do at that point was to wait and hope.

As I share my personal experience, I’m aware that one person’s experience may differ greatly from the next, and other students in the cohort had virtual interviews, so they have kindly offered their reflections and experiences below:

Rosalind McAlpine: “I found the interview (surprisingly) enjoyable! I was slightly nervous about the pre-interview task, but the interview panel created an inviting and supportive atmosphere and my anxieties were immediately dissolved. As I was studying in America at the time, I completed my interview online and – prior to it starting – I was slightly apprehensive that things would be awkward due to the digital nature of the interview. However, the panel were clearly very experienced in conducting these sorts of interviews because I never felt as though I was being spoken over or speaking over someone, and the interview had a pleasant, reciprocal dynamic to it. I felt the questions they asked me were completely appropriate and allowed me to demonstrate why I wanted to join the programme and what I hoped to gain from it. Similarly, I felt comfortable in asking any questions that popped up and felt I was heard throughout.”

Thomas Steare: “Interviewing for a Wellcome-funded PhD at University College London is quite a big deal. Naturally I was nervous despite the numerous practice interviews I had done the week before. A great thing about the programme is its emphasis on supporting students and their well-being. This was evident throughout the interview as the panel made a big effort to be supportive and engaging. My anxieties quickly subsided when the interview commenced, and I soon enjoyed answering the interviewers’ questions and explaining why I was so interested in studying a PhD with a focus on interdisciplinary research methods.”

Giulia Piazza: “March 2020 was a strange month for many reasons. I was very surprised to be invited to an interview for the UCL-Wellcome 4-year PhD in Mental Health Science. I remember being incredibly nervous –  I practiced a lot, and thankfully the panel was extremely welcoming and reassuring. I thought all questions were fair and relevant, and tried my best to explain why I so badly wanted to join the programme. If you have been shortlisted for an interview, here is my advice. Keep going despite technical mishaps. You might feel like you haven’t answered a question as best as you could have, but don’t lose hope throughout the interview. No one will be trying to trick you or get you to make a mistake: your interviewers really want every candidate to perform at their best, and they understand people will naturally be anxious on the day. Genuinely answer with your opinions, rather than thinking about what you believe the committee wants to hear. And lastly (and this is the hardest part), try not to be too hard on yourself!”

If you have been shortlisted and are currently preparing for your interview, my main tips would be:

  • Use your application to guide your preparation. You have been shortlisted based on your application so use this to your advantage, and think of the interview as an opportunity to expand and reinforce what is included in your application
  • Spend some time thinking about and preparing what you want to prioritise sharing in the interview
  • Think about what the panel will want to know about you in order to gauge whether this programme is the right fit for your experience and passion for research and consider what they are looking for in a candidate
  • Interviews don’t have to be daunting – framing them as a conversation with a new colleague about your previous experience and your aspirations, as opposed to giving answers to difficult questions from scary academics, might make it easier to prepare.
  • Remember that there is more to you than just your academic achievements, and being a good candidate is about more than just having a longlist of experience and accolades
  • Think about any questions you may have about the programme and use the interview opportunity to ask the committee members

Humma Andleeb is on the 4-year PhD programme in Mental Health Science at UCL. She has an academic background in biochemistry and neuroscience and previously worked at The McPin Foundation, using her lived experience of mental health difficulties to inform mental health research. She is passionate about patient and public involvement, specifically involving minoritised communities furthest away from the research field. She is a regular book reader, sourdough baker and lifestyle podcast listener. You can find her on Twitter: @HummaAndleeb

Suicide and COVID-19: ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’

By tonydavid, on 8 February 2021

Suicidologists, not famed for their optimism, are bracing themselves for an increase in suicide rates following the pandemic. Some have called it a perfect storm (1). It is not an easy subject to discuss for two main reasons. A person bereaved by suicide described it to me as like having a hand grenade explode in your living room. But precisely because suicide is such a singular event, it can only really be studied – in a way that useful lessons can be learned – from a distance, looking at large numbers and trends over time, by taking a kind of aerial view. The other reason is contagion. That’s why there are strict guidelines from the ‘Samaritans’ and others, on the way suicide is reported in the media (2) – which include avoidance of sensationalism, of the idea that the act is heroic, dwelling on methods, and that suicide was inevitable – for fear of copycats. Indeed the worst kind of newspaper reports did emerge early in the pandemic from India of people unexpectedly and violently taking their own lives after being told they had the virus but this did not continue and mercifully did not foretell of any similar trends. And I am conscious of even now having to be careful about my use of language even in the context of an article intended for a largely academic and educated audience (3,4).

Even asking about suicidal thoughts in a clinical context has made people anxious that it ‘puts thought into people’s heads’. Reassuringly, summarising several studies on this question, authors of a systematic review conclude that it is safe and can, as would be hoped, relieve distress (5). Our instincts and those motivating the bulk of mental health awareness campaigns tell us that it is good to talk. I should add that listening to someone who looks you in the eye and tells you of their intention to kill themselves feels like that grenade has just landed in your lap. It’s not an easy subject to talk or hear about.

Knowing of the possibility of suicide is arguably the uniquely human existential curse, as elaborated by 20th Century philosophers like Heidegger. But does being reminded of it really make a difference? Goethe’s hapless hero Werther takes his own life due to unrequited love. This sparked a minor craze in the mid 1770s of imitations by romantic young men donning the same blue coat and yellow waistcoat, and leaving the tell-tale eponymous novel by their sides. The moral panic that ensued has repeated itself many times with ‘13 Reason’s Why’ being a notable recent example (6).

Such outbreaks, spatial-temporal clustering to use the technical term, are fiendishly hard to prove statistically (7). In the age of social media and the internet the ‘where’ of a suicide hardly matters – unless within an institution like a prison or a psychiatric hospital – and the timing of a cluster is not obvious either; the next day, week, month? Indeed if there is to be an increase in suicides in the wake of this pandemic when should we expect it? Suicide statistics accumulate slowly and in the UK may wait months for a coroner’s verdict. Suicide is, thankfully, rare enough that it takes a while to see enough instances to say whether rates have increased even nationally, in comparison to, for example, the same time last year, even using provisional statistics.

Efforts have been accelerated around the world by the pandemic to provide real-time surveillance information so that rates can be tracked and if rising, perhaps mitigated (8). Early reports from Queensland Australia (pop approx. 5m) have made use of police reports to the coroner. There were tragically 434 suicides from February through August 2020, a rate which did not differ compared to the preceding 5 years (9). The social context of the suicides did not show any particular emphasis on say unemployment or domestic violence and just 36 were judged initially at least as being related to Covid-19 – in what way, was not made explicit. A study from Japan (10), which has suffered less than the most European countries from the pandemic, normally has an average of 1596 suicides per month but this dropped by 14% between February and June last year but then increased by 16% in July to October. Interpreting such fluctuation is tricky. Could it be that suicide was delayed during the first wave only to rebound or are we seeing a cumulative effect? The study authors wonder whether it has to do with the prospect of withdrawal of government financial support packages. Work in progress reported by the UK’s National Confidential Enquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health shows no increase in the monthly average from April-August 2020 compared with Jan-March (11). A similar picture of no increases is emerging from Norway (12) and preliminary data from the US (8).

The nearest we have in the UK to official rolling figures are monthly statistics on mortality in people under 18 (13). In the 82 days before the first lockdown in March 2020 there were a heart-rending 26 deaths by suicide compared with 25 in the first 56 days after, an post-lockdown increase in rate by about 40% but with a very wide margin of error such that the difference fails to meet conventional levels of statistical significance. A third of the young people were known to services.

Experience from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Hong Kong in the spring of 2003 – also caused by a coronavirus (14) showed an uptick of about 30% in deaths by suicide paralleling SARS mortality – over its 4 month course (15). This affected older women particularly, a group more prone to suicide in China for some reason unlike the general rule around the world that older men have the highest rates. However the summer peak did not occur leading the authors to wonder if suicide had simply been brought forward by the epidemic (16).

What of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19? Very little data on suicide are available but one US (17) and one Swedish study (18) using fairly reliable contemporaneous figures found no increase. It’s true, that there was a lot going on then! The Great War (like all wars) showed the expected drop in suicide, perhaps due to an increase in social cohesion, followed by an increase which coincided with Spanish flu, so teasing out the effects of each is impossible. As an aside, rates following the two world wars did rise again but not quite to pre-war levels and then peaked around the great depression. Rates in Europe and the UK have been gradually falling ever since. Indeed if there is a predictable harbinger of increased suicide on the large demographic scale it is economic hardship. It is therefore suicide rates over the next few years that will be most scrutinised.

There is no vaccine for suicide but there are some ways to increase immunity. Social proximity, economic support for those in poverty, agile and responsive mental health services, control of alcohol consumption being the most obvious.

One of my patients etched on my memory suffered depression severe enough to require in-patient care. He was driven to despair by religious guilt over a seemingly minor misdemeanour. As his mood improved with antidepressants and psychological support there seemed to be a glimmer of light, and he’d had enough of all that ‘religious nonsense’. I was reassured only for him to take his own life dramatically during a period of home leave a few weeks later (see 19). My lesson: whatever binds people together in society – shared values, beliefs, rituals – keeps us alive, regardless of their rationality.

In sum, when it comes to suicide, especially in the midst of a pandemic, it may be good to talk but it depends what you say. We might remember the WW2 safety slogan – “careless talk costs lives”. Perhaps the next mental health awareness campaign should be promoting the benefits of listening. Listening to what people are saying as well as what evidence and data are showing; we all need to try and learn from that.

And for every Werther there is a Papageno from the Magic Flute or George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ – numinous tales of people turning away from suicide thanks to others sharing ways to value continued living – despite moments of desperation. Don’t ever say it’s inevitable.

Professor Anthony David

Director, UCL Institute of Mental Health

 

References:

  1. Reger MA, Stanley IH, Joiner TE. Suicide mortality and coronavirus disease 2019—a perfect storm? JAMA Psychiatry. 2020. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2764584
  2. World Health Organization. Preventing suicide: A resource for media professionals. 2017 https://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/resource_booklet_2017/en/.
  3. Gunnell D, Appleby L, Arensman E et al. Suicide risk and prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lancet Psychiatry 2020. 7: 468–71. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32330430
  4. Hawton K, Marzano L, Fraser L, Hawley M, Harris E, Lainez Y. Reporting on suicidal behaviour and covid-19—need for caution. Lancet Psychiatry 2021. 8:15-7. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30484-3.
  5. Polihronis C, Cloutier P, Kaur J, Skinner R, Cappelli M. What’s the harm in asking? A systematic review and meta-analysis on the risks of asking about suicide-related behaviors and self-harm with quality appraisal, Archives of Suicide Research, 2020. DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2020.1793857
  6. Ortiz P, Khin E. Traditional and new media’s influence on suicidal behavior and contagion. Behaviour Science and Law. 2018. 36:245–256.
  7. Niedzwiedz C, Haw C, Hawton K, Platt S. The definition and epidemiology of clusters of suicidal behavior: a systematic review. Suicide Life Threatening Behavior.2014. 44, 569–581.
  8. John A, Pirkis A, Gunnell D, Appleby L, Morrissey J. Trends in suicide during the covid-19 pandemic: Prevention must be prioritised while we wait for a clearer picture. BMJ 2020;371:m4352
  9. Leske S, Kõlves K, Crompton D, Arensman E, Leo DD. Real-time suicide mortality data from police reports in Queensland, Australia, during the COVID-19 pandemic: an interrupted time-series analysis. Lancet Psychiatry 2021; 8: 58–63
  10. Increase in suicide following an initial decline during the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan. Tanaka T, Okamoto S. Nature: Human Behaviour. 2021. doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-01042-z
  11. National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health. Suicide in England since the COVID-19 pandemic- early figures from real-time surveillance. 2020. http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=51861
  12. Qin P, Mehlum L. National observation of death by suicide in the first 3 months under COVID-19 pandemic. Acta Psychiatr Scand 2020.pmid: 33111325
  13. National Child Mortality Database. Child suicide rates during the covid-19 pandemic in England: real-time surveillance. 2020. https://www.ncmd.info/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/REF253-2020-NCMD-Summary-Report-on-Child-Suicide-July-2020.pdf
  14. Rogers JP et al. Psychiatric and neuropsychiatric presentations associated with severe coronavirus infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis with comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lancet Psychiatry 2020. 7: 611–27. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32437679
  15. Chan SM et al. 2006. Elderly suicide and the 2003 SARS epidemic in Hong Kong. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2006. 21: 113–18.
  16. Cheung YT, Chau PH, Yip PSF. A revisit on older adults suicides and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in Hong Kong. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2008. 23: 1231–38
  17. Wasserman IM. The impact of epidemic, war, prohibition and media on suicide: United States, 1910–1920. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior 1992. 22: 240–54.
  18. Rück C, Mataix-Cols D, Malki K, Adler M, Flygare O, Runeson B, Sidorchuk A. Will the COVID-19 pandemic lead to a tsunami of suicides? A Swedish nationwide analysis of historical and 2020 data. medRxiv preprint doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.10.20244699
  19. David A. Into the Abyss: a neuropsychiatrist’s notes on troubled lives. Oneworld Publications, 2020, London.

 

Applying for the UCL-Wellcome 4-year PhD Programme in Mental Health Science by Humma Andleeb

By iomh, on 6 November 2020

profile photo of phd student humma andleeb

This is a series of blogs about my experience of the UCL-Wellcome Mental Health Science PhD programme. It will cover applying for the programme, the interview and lead up to enrolment stage of the programme as well as my experience of the programme and my PhD. I am publishing these blogs for prospective students in response to the queries I have received about the programme in response to my Twitter thread  on successfully securing a place on the programme.

During my undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Neuroscience, I worked with a PhD student on my research project and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to go on and do a PhD too. However, I was aware that the financial constraints and the commitment of doing a PhD were things to be carefully considered before taking the leap.

I applied for various research assistant posts with no success until I came across an opportunity with The McPin Foundation as a trainee researcher, with an emphasis on the importance of lived experience of mental health problems. In my teenage years, I experienced quite severe depression and self-harm and was regularly seeing a child psychiatrist in my local Child and Adolescent Mental Health service. This was the start of my journey in mental health research and what better way to get involved in research than by using my lived experience to inform the work. I was elated when, much to my relief, I got the position at McPin.

In my three years at McPin, I was able to work on qualitative studies as well as use my background in quantitative methods on projects. It is during this time that my passion for research in mental health was cemented and I knew doing a PhD was the dream next step in my career as a researcher. I say it was a dream because it really was. It is rare for South Asian women to pursue academia beyond undergraduate or Master’s studies. There is a pressure culture around preparedness for marriage, children and family. Although it is difficult to detach yourself from the guilt of not pursuing the path set out for you, it felt like a natural progression for me to further my experience and training in mental health research.

During my time working at McPin, I loved the social and psychological research but I was missing the clinical neuroscience aspect that I had become so interested in during my undergraduate studies. I had been contemplating PhDs for a while, browsing Find a PhD, and speaking to various academics in the networks I had built at McPin about funding opportunities and PhD projects, until I came across a tweet by Jon Roiser (the course director) on the news that the Wellcome Trust had awarded UCL a 4-year PhD programme in Mental Health Science!

The description caught my eye and upon exploring it further on the website, it seemed too good to be true. I was baffled as to how much it matched my interests, experiences and what I was looking for, all in one PhD. The main thing that stood out to me was the emphasis on collaboration and interdisciplinary research – a topic that I have often openly spoke about the need for in research, to better treat and prevent mental health problems.

I spent the following week exploring the application process and what the programme was looking for from applicants, as well as what it could offer me, before deciding to apply for it. For me, a major factor of pursuing a PhD was ensuring that I was an ideal candidate for the programme, but also that the programme met my needs and future aspirations. Having lived experience and using it to inform the research I have been and will be involved in, it was fundamental for me to be able to disclose that, and to ensure that there was adequate mental health support available during the course of a PhD.

As most will be aware, PhDs have the potential to be isolating for students due to the nature of working on a stand-alone project – therefore it’s crucial that students have appropriate support systems and networks around them. Having previous mental health problems may further exacerbate this isolation so the fact that the programme assigns each student an independent mentor as well as being part of a cohort of five other students on the same programme eased my worries.

It was also critical that I would be able to express my identity and experience as a South Asian woman and for institutions to make space for those from minoritised communities or from a “BAME” background, who are less likely to pursue further studies in academia and when they do, retainment is very low. It is promising that the programme acknowledges and attempts to address these issues, and has ringfenced a scholarship for one “BAME” student each year of the programme.

Focus points of the programme that stood out to me included the opportunity to widen my skill set through access to a network of supervisors in rotation projects during the first year, working across three themes: Mechanism, Population and Intervention. This would allow me to work with teams I had not previously encountered, and to train in a range of methods and techniques applied in mental health research at UCL. The reason this stood out to me was because I am passionate about a range of topics including clinical neuroscience, social research, quantitative and qualitative methodologies, as well as personal interests in the impact of lifestyle on mental health. I was torn on what I wanted to do my PhD on – all I knew was that I wanted it to be a collaboration between neuroscience and mental health, and ensure that the voices of those the furthest away from research were involved.

The deadline for the application was looming, so I got to work filling out the application form in the mornings whilst having breakfast, and the evenings after work. The application form is made up of a diversity monitoring form and an application form for the programme. The diversity monitoring form is not compulsory, but allows the team to keep track of the characteristics of those applying for the programme and detect any biases in the process. The application form, which must be submitted online, consists of sections about your academic achievements, your work experience and any research publications you may have, followed by three free-text sections about your research experience, a statement of motivation and your views on mental health research. The statement of motivation is a particularly important section of the application form (and the section I spent the most amount of time going back and forth with!), giving me the opportunity to express why the programme was of interest to me, how it fit in with my career trajectory and potential research areas I was interested in. There is a word limit to each of the free-text sections of the application form, which for me was a positive – it meant I had to succinctly prioritise what was essential for the application form, and what could be further discussed at interview stage if my application was shortlisted.

As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I submitted my application on the deadline date, going back and forth with several edits, asking family and even my former colleagues who encouraged me to apply (I know!), to proof-read and provide feedback on it. I may have even dreamt about the application the night I handed it in!

The suspense in between submitting the application and hearing back was tense, as many people knew how much work I had put into the application and how energised I was about the programme. When I found out I had been shortlisted, I couldn’t believe it – I probably (definitely!) celebrated like I had been offered a place! To even get to this stage is a huge milestone as it signifies an acknowledgement of your potential suitability to the programme as well as the quality of your application.

The next step was to prepare for the interview coming up a few weeks later which was nerve-wrecking to say the least as COVID-19 started spreading in London and things were getting tense everywhere, but I will cover more of this in the next blog!


For prospective students reading this thinking of applying to the programme, from my perspective the main tips I would give would be:

  • Think about why you want to apply to the programme and what you will get out of it, but also what the programme will get from you as a student
  • Put time and effort into the application, it is your opportunity to impress the committee within a word limit, and to summarise your experiences and interests
  • Look at the supervisor list before applying and think about any supervisors you potentially want to work with on your rotations and/or your main PhD
  • Allow plenty of time to proofread your application and maybe get someone else to proofread it too
  • Ensure that the application form presents you as a person, not only through your academic experience

Humma Andleeb is on the 4-year PhD programme in Mental Health Science at UCL. She has an academic background in biochemistry and neuroscience and previously worked at The McPin Foundation, using her lived experience of mental health difficulties to inform mental health research. She is passionate about patient and public involvement, specifically involving minoritised communities furthest away from the research field. She is a regular book reader, sourdough baker and lifestyle podcast listener. You can find her on Twitter: @HummaAndleeb

Awareness is just the start

By tonydavid, on 9 October 2020

World Mental Health Day 2020 poster by Mental Health Foundation

World Mental Health Day 2020 poster by Mental Health Foundation

The 10th October 2020 is World Mental Health Day. This marking of the calendar was launched in 1992 by the World Health Organisation and has become well established. The UK Charity, the Mental Health Foundation proposed a regular awareness week (occurring in May – 18th to 24th this year), back in 2001. Time to Talk day was 6th February 2020, following Blue Monday – 20th January – spuriously claimed to be the most depressing day of the year. In fact, there are mental health days or weeks for fathers, mothers, men and women in general, children (3rd– 9th Feb) and many more – helpfully gathered on the website: therapyforyou.co.uk/post/mental-health-calendar.

It would be easy – and wrong – to be cynical about all this. Wrong because awareness should be the first step towards understanding – for those who are ignorant or unduly frightened by mental illness. Greater awareness in the minds of politicians, philanthropists and scientists should lead to more research and better funding for services. Above all, greater awareness should replace prejudice and stigma with realistic appreciation and empathy. However, as with many anti-stigma initiatives, this can have unintended consequences (watch my talk on this for last year’s World Mental Health Day). In the case of awareness days and weeks – it can lead to complacency and apathy. A better response is to try and propel the agenda forward from awareness to deeper understanding and most important of all, action.

One undeniably positive consequence of greater awareness is the empowerment of people with lived experience of mental health problems to not only tell their stories in their own words but also to become an essential part of “the solution”. I put that in inverted commas to indicate clearly that there is certainly no simple or single solution to mental illness or disorder but that research – from basic science to clinical care to public policy – is the driver towards such an ideal.

The UCL Institute of Mental Health (IoMH) is lucky to have on its advisory board a number of highly qualified and motivated  individuals who are able to use their experience of being patients (let’s not say ‘users’) and carers within the psychiatric care system. Here Jackie Hardy and Jason Grant share some thoughts prompted by World Mental Health day.

Nothing about us, without us

I have welcomed being involved in the IoMH and some mental health research with UCL looking at COVID19 and its impact on people’s mental health during this exceptional period in history. The research really has tried to involve Lived Experience Researchers in all pieces of the work, which I have so welcomed. It will be good when some of the papers around this come out.

Being involved has meant I have felt part of something and can share my lived experience in helping to shape things.

Right now we live in uncertain times and I feel mental health services are due an overhaul and have been for a long time. Despite statutory services asking people with lived experience of mental distress, and carers, their views, the same medical model still seems to exist. I would like to see the social model of disability embraced, along with a model of peer support, designed and delivered by people with lived experience of mental distress. Unless you have been there you really cannot know what it is like. The right model of peer support has the person leading their discovery journey – I prefer this term, as ‘recovery’ is pressure; so many of us discover a lot about ourselves, but may never truly recover, as it can be very up and down, as life has its events.

Mental health services should be holistic, looking at the whole person and their whole life and be ‘person centred’. We are all unique individuals, so please do not try to put a square peg in a round hole. Such support needs to be joined up with health professionals and our support network (if we have one, if not ask peers if they can help link the person in to a support network).

If peer support can be person centred, why cannot statutory services? If you do not know how, then please, please talk to us – “nothing about us, without us”, is a term regularly used.

One place to start is NSUN https://www.nsun.org.uk/ – they are: “a network of people and groups living in England who have and do experience mental distress and want to change things for the better.” They can help with research, decide on what should be researched by reaching out to their network of people. I would like to see more lived experience researchers, along with us receiving funding, leading in research and on papers. We can work and learn together.

Change is long overdue, so this is my personal plea for a change.

Jackie Hardy

From Patient to Peer-Support Worker

In the summer of 2015, I had a psychotic episode whilst travelling in Brazil and ended up walking around for three days without sleeping. As I had no insight at the time, I thought that it was just a bad experience and thought nothing more of it. I even went travelling again in Europe a month later where I experienced another psychotic episode. This time I was taken to a psychiatric hospital in Prague and my family had to come and get me out of the country.

I still wasn’t entirely sure what was happening and resolved to not go travelling again for a while. Unfortunately for me, I had another psychotic episode and ended on a section 136 (brought into hospital as an emergency) in Eastbourne Hospital. After being admitted onto the ward for a couple of days, I was then transferred to Meadowfield in Worthing. At this point, I finally realised that it was my mental health that was causing me all of the problems that I was facing and I was determined to do something about it.

I made sure that my time in hospital was spent doing as many activities as possible, from mindfulness, art classes, playing basketball and badminton, walking around the grounds, and even making paper birds using origami.

I was discharged after 10 days into the care of the Crisis Team who referred me to the Early Intervention Service.

I had support for a couple of months then was transferred to Glasgow services as I decided to go back to university. When I returned to Sussex, my care continued for just over three years. During that time, I was able to receive support from a care co-ordinator, participated in various research studies, attended groups and meetings within the Trust, and managed to gain insight around my signs, symptoms, what to do in a crisis and how to manage my condition.

Just to clarify, psychosis is a condition which affects the mind. It changes the way you think, feel, and behave. Some may lose sense of reality and fall into their imagination. Psychosis can occur when drug misuse is an issue and as a reaction to extreme stress or trauma. Psychosis can happen to anyone and like any other illness, it can be treated.

In March of 2020, I interviewed for the position of peer support worker within the same Early Intervention Service that I went through and was successful in securing the role. It took a little while to finally get into post, due to the pandemic and remote working, but I have been working part time since August.

For those that don’t know, Early Intervention is a community-based service for people aged up to 65 years old who are experiencing their first episode of psychosis. The idea is to help people have a positive first experience of mental health services, to reduce symptoms and support recovery, to support the family/carers and involve them as much as possible, and to use evidence-based treatments for psychosis.

The team consists of doctors, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, psychologists, pharmacists, and peer support workers (of which I am the first in the team). My role is to provide an element of hope based on my recovery, resilience, and self-determination. I will also be able to help others navigate the service and signpost people to other peer activities within the Trust like working-together groups, recovery college, and people participation.

Jason Grant

The academic conference: a Total Perspective Vortex with cappuccinos

By tonydavid, on 1 September 2020

In anticipation of the UCL Institute of Mental Health’s first international Conference on 9th September, I posed a few questions to our speakers about their attitudes and experiences of scientific conferences. In this Covid-19 world we are having to rethink many aspects of life we previously took for granted – from the most profound to the trivial (I am not sure where conferences sit on this dimension).

The first question was:  What do you most miss/not miss about ‘conventional’ (pre-Covid) scientific conferences?

For Argyris Stringaris it is the sheer randomness of the encounters that academic conferences engender. For Emily Holmes it’s about sharing cups of coffee and informal chats around the symposia. “Getting to know the people behind the research” as much as hearing about the research alone is the key. Meeting people behind the scientific papers that you have read is a truly eye-opening experience, but not always positive. Some say you should never meet your heroes. I find that I am increasing left feeling that the person whose work I have admired invariably turns out to be much younger than I had imagined. Perhaps this is evidence of a bias to equate longevity with wisdom – a self-serving bias of course. Tamsin Ford agrees – except it’s “a good-sized mug of tea” that she yearns for rather than coffee, but certainly not the jet lag, the delays in immigration and the inevitable traveller’s fatigue.

This is particularly salient for Ethel Mpungu who is based in Uganda. “At the moment, I do not miss ‘conventional’ (pre-COVID) scientific conferences outside my country” she says. “The fatigue from the long distance travel was just about to kill me!… For now I will enjoy the international conferences in the comfort of my office. Before Covid, in-country conferences were attended by very few individuals but with virtual conferences up to 300-500 may attend which I find absolutely amazing. I know that my work has reached so many more people in my country during the Covid pandemic than before.” And we anticipate reaching over 500 this time round.

But what of the actual ‘work’ of the conference format. Pasco Fearon laments the absence of live question and answer sessions from the floor. “I do rather miss formulating a polite answer to the inevitable left-field, really long and rambling question – posting questions online and having the chair choose them has killed that sport.” (We will try and keep this sport alive on September 9th). But who misses those other staples: “This isn’t so much a question as a comment…” and the embittered, entitled question that barely conceals the admonishment: why didn’t you cite my work?

Finally there is the longing for international travel and cultural exchange. For Rick Adams it’s the glorious Italian food at the Schizophrenia International Research Society in Florence every other spring, and American music at Society of Biological Psychiatry.

The second question put to our guests was:  What scientific conferences do you most enjoy?  eg., small focussed symposia? Large scale extravaganzas?

Here I can report that the data were fairly consistent and convincing. The small symposia were considerably more appreciated – “small all the way” according to Rick Adams – but even here it is hard to separate the academic aspects from those more social. Pasco Fearon again: “I much prefer the smaller conferences where there’s a tighter focus on an area of interest; old friends and new stars get to meet, talk in-depth and socialise. I find the big conferences a bit like the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!”

Some like to have their cake and eat it. “I love small focussed symposia (which allow discussion and debate)”, says Emily Holmes, “…but within Large scale extravaganzas to catch up on the big picture.” The same story comes from Tamsin Ford, for whom it’s the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s ‘research institutes’, “… where a whole day is devoted to a project – some of these have been excellent” – a kind of small-within-large format.

Clearly if it’s about getting your message out to the largest number of people, the large-scale events deliver on their promise and that is what swings it for Ethel Mpungu.  For Jim Gold it’s all about catching up with old friends – more likely in the big international events – although for him the real purpose seems to be seeing who has or has not aged well. It reminds me of a class reunion I went to – often the scene of repressed competitiveness – where the most coveted prize was, not for the most successful or wealthy but for the person who looked most “well preserved”.

The final question was as follows:  What is the single most important scientific/clinical question in our field right now?

Perhaps surprisingly given the scope of the question, there was something approaching a consensus. For Jim Gold and Ethel Mpungu – it’s simple. “When will clinical neuroscience actually impact clinical care at a large scale?” says Jim, while Ethel wants to know, “How interventions work and for whom”.  Argyris Stringaris is equally succinct: “What is mood and how to influence it?”

Pasco Fearon circles the question before homing in: “How can we make programmatic mental health prevention really work? It’s one of the holy grails of the field, but it’s fraught with difficulties.” But like all good research, attempting to answer one question always leads to many more: “How do we sustain intervention effects over long periods of time? In child psychology and psychiatry there are a good number of prevention and intervention strategies that seem to be helpful in the short-term, but their benefits often fade over time. Good strategies for maintaining treatment gains might sometimes be quite different to the strategies that affected change in the first place, but we rarely think about this thoroughly or study it.”

Emily Holmes also wants to take a run-up before jumping on the major questions.  She says: “To dream big and really help people with mental health difficulties, we are going to have to transform our culture … For example, how can we move from studies about ‘description’ (merely counting, describing, knowing if something works or not) to learn to best change what is troubling someone and derive novel interventions to transform mental health?”

But we cannot escape the challenge of the moment. For Tamsin Ford the biggest question for us to address right now is “The impact of Covid and the recession on the mental health and development of children and young people” but perhaps she would say that. Rick Adams is also acutely in tune with the times. When preparing for a scientific lecture, the question at the forefront of his mind is:

“Has someone forgotten to mute themselves?”

When Private Optimism meets Public Despair: People adapt to threats like Covid-19 by maintaining positive and protective biases while reducing negative perceptions and emotions

By Maria Thomas, on 29 June 2020

This blog was written by PhD Student Laura K. Globig from the Department of Experimental Psychology, UCL. 

woman wearing face mask

Humans tend to be optimistic. They overestimate their financial prosperity and marriage longevity, while underestimating their risk of disease, such as cancer or suffering other hardships, like being burgled (Sharot, 2011, Weinstein, 1980).

What is surprising about such observations is that anecdotally, people also often express pessimism regarding the state of society as a whole. Following the financial collapse of 2008, polls showed that people were extremely pessimistic about the financial future of their country. By contrast, they were optimistic about their own financial prospects (Ipsos MORI, 2008).

Now these seemingly opposing but coexisting beliefs integrate to shape a person’s response becomes especially relevant when danger faces the self and others. How someone estimates their own vulnerability will likely affect their well-being and the choices they make. Simultaneously, someone’s predictions about the vulnerability of society at large could also affect their personal well-being and behavior. The latter is particularly pertinent, when one’s own behavior can affect others’ well-being.

As COVID-19 swept the globe and stay at home orders were issued we surveyed a representative sample of 1145 Americans in 30 states across two timepoints. Our aim was two-fold: 1) To investigate how people perceived the danger COVID-19 posed to themselves and to their fellow citizens. 2) To determine how these perceived risks influenced their own well-being and behavior.

We found that people believed they were at lower risk of getting COVID-19 relative to others their age and gender. We refer to this as private optimism. At the same time, people also believed that COVID-19 posed a tremendous danger to the health of the human population as whole. We refer to this as public pessimism.

We found that private optimism can be explained by people’s sense of control. People believe their fate is in their own hands, and thus they believe they can avoid negative outcomes (Zakay, 1984). During the pandemic, this may relate to people believing they are in control over being exposed to the virus. This then leads them to believe they are less likely than others to catch the virus. But because this sense of control does not extend to society, they are less optimistic about global issues. We cannot control how others behave during the pandemic.

Those who were optimistic about their own chances of being infected were also happier and less anxious compared to those who were not. How people estimated the danger posed by COVID-19 to society as a whole however did not influence personal happiness, but did affect anxiety. Those who were pessimistic about the danger to society, were more anxious. Thus, our perception of our own vulnerability can influence both positive and negative aspects of well-being, while how vulnerable we perceive others relates specifically to anxiety.

When it comes to slowing the spread of COVID-19, to what extent we adopt preventative measures, such as social distancing, not only mitigates our own risk of getting infected, but also that of others. It enables us to protect those who are particularly vulnerable.

Our study shows that public pessimism predicted how likely people were to adhere to public health advice to slow the spread. That is, people who believed the virus posed a great danger to society as a whole reported putting greater effort in social distancing, hand washing and avoiding touching their faces. How people considered the risk to the self, however, did not affect compliance. This suggests that people predominantly engage in protective behaviors for the benefit of others.

Finally, we also observed that people adapted well to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Their well-being increased as lockdown progressed. Compared to the start of lockdown, people were less anxious and reported an increased sense of control. They considered the danger of COVID-19 to humanity as less than they did at the beginning of lockdown. Private optimism and happiness remained stable throughout. This suggests that humans adapt to threats by maintaining positive and protective biases while reducing negative perceptions and emotions.

We surveyed Americans across 30 US states, thereby allowing us to sample a diverse representation of US citizens. Notably, we did not observe an effect of state or number of COVID-19 cases or COVID-19 related fatalities at the time of testing. It is therefore likely that our findings will also apply to other countries, such as the United Kingdom.

Rather than an effect of location, we did find that political orientation, age, gender and socioeconomic status had a differential effect on well-being and behavior. Older individuals and females were more like to comply with government advice related to COVID-19 mitigation. Moreover, those with high income were happier. Finally, males and republicans were more likely to express private and public optimism. Additionally, younger individuals were also more likely to express private optimism. Future research is needed to explore how government policies in response to COVID-19 influence well-being and behavior. There may well be differential effects on an international scale.

Given the recent decline in COVID-19 cases and easing restrictions, it is possible that risk perception in general will decrease, due to the actual risk of infection being reduced. Nevertheless, some preliminary data we collected indicates that people still consider the risk of getting infected themselves as low, relative to others of same age and gender. More work is needed to explore how this optimistic tendency relates to reports of an increasing number of people believing they have already contracted the virus and are thereby immune. As official statistics indicate the true percentage of the population that has actually tested positive for COVID-19 is still relatively small. Therefore, it is in fact possible that the belief to have had COVID-19 already is in itself, also a form of private optimism in which people falsely believe they are immune, and thereby no longer at risk of infection.

One might believe that private optimism may deter individuals from getting vaccinated against COVID-19 once a vaccine becomes available. However, vaccinations rely on the concept of herd immunity and thereby only work to prevent the spread of infectious diseases if the majority of the population is vaccinated. They could therefore be considered a form of behavioral compliance to protect those who are vulnerable and thus one’s willingness to get vaccinated likely relies more on how we estimate the danger to the human population. Of course, this relies on effective communication and education of the public.

There is reason to believe, that the paradoxical existence of private optimism and public pessimism generalizes to other threats such as war, financial collapse and climate change. For example, we speculate that people’s tendency to make “green choices” is linked to the belief that climate change poses a threat to humanity, regardless of whether they believe that they are themselves at risk. Such knowledge can be useful for advocates and policy makers in framing information to encourage individuals to select actions that protect themselves and others from natural and man-made threats. In the future we also hope to explore the mechanistic link between sense of control, private optimism and well-being further. If we can strengthen people’s sense of control, we might be able to harness the positive effects on personal well-being in times of crisis.

 

References

Globig, L. K., Blain, B., & Sharot, T. (2020, May 29). When Private Optimism meets Public Despair: Dissociable effects on behavior and well-being. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/gbdn8

Ipsos MORI. (2008). Political Monitor, March 2008, [UK]. [Data set].  Retrieved from: https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/ipsos-mori-political-monitor-march-2008

Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias. Current Biology, 21(23), R941–R945. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2011.10.030

Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(5), 806–820. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.39.5.806

Zakay, D. (1984). The Influence of Perceived Event’s Controllability on Its Subjective Occurrence Probability. The Psychological Record, 34(2), 233–240. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03394867

Researching student mental health during the pandemic: a PhD student tries to remain objective

By Maria Thomas, on 4 May 2020

This blog has been guest written by PhD Student Tayla McCloud, UCL Division of Psychiatry.

Woman anxious at desk with laptop

It is difficult to think of anyone who is unaffected in some way by the current coronavirus pandemic and resulting UK lockdown. Whilst practical adjustments and physical health concerns spring to mind, there are myriad mental health implications, too.

Results from two early online surveys conducted by the mental health charity MQ and the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) showed that the main concerns among people with lived experience of a mental illness and others in the general population were the impact of the pandemic on anxiety, isolation, and access to support. These are likely to affect everyone to differing degrees throughout the lockdown.

On April 15th, a team of prominent psychiatric researchers published a piece in Lancet Psychiatry calling for high-quality research monitoring the mental health impact on the general population overall and in specific vulnerable groups. These are defined as including children and young people affected by school closures, older adults who may be isolated, and frontline healthcare workers. This is undoubtedly of utmost importance.

One group also experiencing a lot of disruption, though, is university students. Universities have been forced to close physically, meaning that this year’s exam and graduation season has been upended. Teaching is being conducted remotely and assessments have mostly been moved to different formats online. Like primary and secondary education students, university students will be adjusting to a completely new routine and way of learning.

Unlike primary and secondary students, though, for university students studying ‘at home’ may mean moving back in with parents in a completely different city, town or even country to where they usually study. This is likely to be a considerable upheaval at an already difficult time, with concerns around when it will be safe to return, but students who do not go back to where they lived before university risk being left to live alone without their usual support networks as many others leave.

Most university courses are attempting to continue as close to normal as possible, delivering teaching remotely, which means assessments are still largely going ahead. This means that students are under a lot of pressure to be as productive and focused as usual during what is a very tough time psychologically. Without access to libraries and equipment, they also may not have the resources or study spaces they usually have in which to complete their work. Under-performance, as well as the pandemic itself, could negatively impact their future career.

For these reasons, among others, university students may be at increased risk of experiencing negative mental health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. It is, however, difficult to know this without relevant data.

SENSE Study Logo

This is where my PhD project, the SENSE study, comes in. SENSE is a longitudinal survey of the mental health of UCL students, conducted online beginning in October 2019. The last wave was in February 2020 and the next wave will begin shortly, in May. It covers such areas as students’ demographics, accommodation, financial situation and social lives, and we are adding new questions relating to the pandemic. This means that we will be able to compare UCL students’ mental health before and during the UK coronavirus outbreak. This could help us to understand more about which groups are more vulnerable to the impact of UCL’s closure and the UK lockdown, potentially highlighting areas for intervention. Follow @SENSEstudy on Twitter for updates, or visit our website www.sensestudy.co.uk.

I am also involved in a new study, You-COPE, which aims to measure the mental health of young people aged 16-24 in the UK throughout the lockdown and public health response and in the months afterwards. Follow me on Twitter (@TaylaMcCloud) for updates on this when it launches. This will include university students as well as non-students, and as such will complement the SENSE data findings and allow comparisons between these two groups.

I am attempting to continue this PhD work as usual, whilst conscious that I am a university student living through the coronavirus pandemic researching the mental health of university students during the coronavirus pandemic. It can be difficult to continue work as a “professional” when your work involves focusing on how students are being negatively affected.

Being a student who is researching student mental health is often quite odd like this. I talk about ‘university students’ in the third person, making hypotheses about this abstract group that it is easy to forget I am part of. I often bring my own university experience into the conversation as an example, as do my supervisors, but I am usually referring to a (somewhat) far away undergraduate version of myself and not my present experience. PhD students occupy a confusing space somewhere between staff and student that means we never quite feel like either.

The current coronavirus pandemic, and the resulting UK lockdown and UCL closure, has undoubtedly impacted my PhD work, as well as seemingly every other aspect of my life. I am trying to use this as an advantage; considering how I can use my experience as a UCL student during this time to inform my research, and my interpretation of the findings of this research. I hope that this will add value to the research I am conducting, and that SENSE and You-COPE will be able to shed new light on our understanding of the mental health of university students at a time when they may be particularly vulnerable.

A PhD student’s experience of the lockdown so far – it’s not all bad!

By Maria Thomas, on 27 April 2020

This blog has been guest written by PhD Student Anne Gaule, UCL MRC Doctoral Training Programme in Neuroscience and Mental Health and research student in Department of Clinical, Education and Health Psychology, UCL Psychology and Language Sciences.

school closed sign on school gate

Much like most PhD students I imagine, I followed the news over the last weeks of February closely, wondering how I was going to be able to continue with my research if we entered a lockdown. I am in my third year of the four-year UCL MRC Doctoral Training Programme in Neuroscience and Mental Health. My PhD focuses on social information processing in adolescence, and how this may be affected in children with a history of conduct disorder. This means that a key part of my project is data collection in schools.

At this point I have nearly finished collecting data for one task. I have also been developing new tasks that are engaging and suitable for children whilst having the power required for my stats. Fortunately, (and surprisingly) everything was going according to plan and I was on track to start my piloting and data collection. Unfortunately, I’d planned to start this in March 2020.

For some background, the three new tasks that I have developed need to be run individually with each child at their school and with experimenters present. I have also developed a child version of an adult questionnaire to complement these tasks that needs validation before it can be used. For the new behavioural tasks, I need at least 90 children to take part – on top of piloting.  For the questionnaire, 600 children must take part in order to run full analyses. To submit my thesis by the summer of 2021, I was hoping to have finished collecting data by October 2020 (the optimistic scenario), Christmas at the absolute latest. With around 250 questionnaires completed so far and my new tasks only at the piloting stage, I still have some way to go and the disruption from COVID-19 is putting serious brakes on this process.

My PhD project is a collaboration between our research team and the schools we work with and, as such, it requires time and organisation on both sides. When working with schools, whether mainstream or alternative provision, I am primarily working with teachers who are under an incredible workload. Despite already being overwhelmingly busy, they are generously offering to give up their time in order to help us to carry out this research – which we are all hoping may, in the long run, benefit the children they teach. I am hugely grateful to these teachers and I try my hardest to work around their schedule when setting up recruitment and data collection.

Practically, this translates to a huge number of phone-calls and emails – not to mention keeping track of who you’ve been in contact with and when. We also need consent from parents, which involves the school sending forms and leaving a two-week response period (and getting in touch with busy parents can be as tricky as getting in touch with busy teachers). Once we begin working with a school we need a quiet space on school grounds where we can work with the children relatively undisturbed – not necessarily easy during a busy school day. Finally, testing sessions themselves can also be challenging. We try our hardest to accommodate the children we work with, who are participating entirely voluntarily even if they have parent consent. If a child is having a bad day, we will come back on a different day, or break down the session into smaller sessions. The challenging behaviour of some of the children means the sessions sometimes won’t run smoothly or may take longer than planned. Consequently, an extended period of time has to be factored in for data collection on a project such as this. You can imagine how it felt when, after months of work to set up the data collection operation and with several schools having agreed dates in March for us to work with the children, I then had to cancel all of them. Naturally my anxieties about data collection are not comparable to the impact of this crisis on the schools that we work with – many of whom have vulnerable students whom they continue to support during this crisis. However, it’s hard to see how and when the face-to-face testing can move forward until there is more clarity on when we will emerge from this crisis.

Despite these anxieties, I want to reflect on the fact that I have also been incredibly lucky. I have received a huge amount of support since UCL has closed. For starters, my programme was very quick to notify us that, no matter what stage we are at in our PhD projects, we are all guaranteed an extension of some kind. This has been a huge load off my mind. My supervisor has provided guidance on how to adapt those aspects of my projects that can be conducted online (the questionnaire, for example, is easily transferable) and we have also discussed working on the literature review aspects of my thesis. As all the work I do involves children under the age of 18, whether vulnerable or not, I have had to submit amendments to my ethics in order to adapt various aspects of my data collection – such as taking parental consent online, and recruitment via social media instead of contacting schools directly. Here again I was happy to find that UCL has provided clear guidelines on which projects needed to submit ethics amendments for minor adaptations to protocol for online testing, and the best way to go about doing so. My department has been sending me updates about the UCL’s news and response to the crisis – including specific updates for doctoral students – and also immediately sent us guidance on how to set up to be able to work remotely, so I’ve had continued access to all of my files. My lab has set up regular meetings so that we feel less isolated now that we are no longer to leave our homes.

The immediate support from my programme, department, and supervisor has been a huge relief. I have actually started to enjoy the time I now have to read and to begin writing my thesis. I also believe that as the lockdown conditions ease, I may be able to collect data with the help of other team members, and complete my PhD on time.

Links

National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery: response to the COVID-19 emergency by Jennifer Foley, Edgar Chan, Natasja Van Harskamp & Lisa Cipolotti, UCL Queen Square, London.

By tonydavid, on 17 April 2020

The Department of Neuropsychology of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery: response to the COVID-19 emergency

  

Jennifer A. Foley, Edgar Chan, Natasja Van Harskamp & Lisa Cipolotti

Department of Neuropsychology, National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London.

 

At the time of writing, over 137,000 people worldwide have died with COVID-19 coronavirus. Since the first UK death less than one month ago, almost 13,000 people have now died, with numbers continuing to rise. The UK is in lockdown: ‘non-essential’ businesses and places of worship are closed. Similarly, schools are closed, except for children of key workers. People are only permitted to leave their houses for food, health reasons, one hour of exercise or essential work.

The COVID-19 emergency has required us all to rethink how we work. In the NHS we have had to restructure our clinical services.  At the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (NHNN), a leading tertiary referral neuroscience specialist centre in the UK and part of University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH), two inpatient wards have been dedicated to COVID-19 patients. In response to the rising bed pressure at UCLH, the Hyper-Acute Stroke Unit has been transferred to the NHNN and a new ‘Emergency Stroke Unit’ created. As a consequence, the discharge of inpatients has been greatly expedited. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the NHNN has been placed in lockdown; all visitors are prohibited, even for patients who are very sick and dying. Non-urgent outpatient clinics have been cancelled, with those remaining mostly provided by telephone. Outpatients deemed to be ‘extremely vulnerable’ by Public Health England have been advised to shield for 12 weeks and instructed not to leave their houses, even for shopping or medication.

Clinical staff has to work at a quicker pace, in longer shifts and in smaller teams because of increased staff sickness. They must provide more general medicine and have to learn how to use personal protective equipment (PPE). Academic staff has been redeployed clinically and some staff members have been redeployed to the new London NHS Nightingale Hospital. All staff have to work knowing that they might contract COVID-19, potentially placing themselves and their own household at risk.

In response to the COVID-19 emergency and the changes in clinical care at NHNN the Department of Neuropsychology reconsidered its priorities and how best to quickly respond to the new needs. We developed brand new services to support our staff, patients, and families and carers and took urgent action to provide top-class neuropsychological care. Here, we provide a description of how we have achieved this over the past two weeks.

 

The Department of Neuropsychology at NHNN

Neuropsychology is a highly specialised branch of clinical psychology, whose main focus is on addressing fundamental questions about the relationship between brain and mind. We investigate how changes in brain functioning caused by neurological disorder affect how we think and how we behave. Neuropsychologists are not only trained in general mental health, but also have additional qualifications and substantial specialist knowledge in the neurosciences.

The Department is one of the most renowned and prestigious in the world. Each year we treat approximately 6,700 patients. Our main clinical role is in the assessment, management and treatment of patients with complex neurological, neuropsychiatric and neurosurgical conditions. To meet this need, we have developed a flexible, adaptive and rapid neuropsychological assessment protocol, designed for speed of administration, reliability/validity, as well as detecting change from baseline. Our assessment comprises a brief clinical interview and formal evaluation of thinking skills, including general intelligence, memory, language, perception, frontal ‘executive’ functions and speed of information processing, in addition to assessment of mental health. These thinking skills are assessed with tests developed to be reliable, valid and graded in difficulty, and suitable for people of diverse backgrounds and abilities.

We have also developed a wide range of specialised treatment programmes. These mainly focus on group interventions to help patients cope with the neuropsychological sequelae of neurological conditions. We provide strategies to help reduce the impact of deficits of memory, planning, attention and other cognitive impairments on daily living. We also provide one-to-one support to mitigate anxiety and depression, and to support adjustment to the life changes precipitated by a variety of neurological conditions.

The Department plays a role in generating world-class clinical research, publishing approximately 40 peer-reviewed research papers each year. Our research strategy aims to improve diagnostic assessment and further the understanding of brain disorders and cognitive functioning. Recent focus has been on acquiring knowledge to help improve NHS neuropsychological service provision through: development of new tests to allow better identification of frontal executive and nonverbal memory impairments; development of new brief cognitive screening tools; and improved characterisation of the reliability and stability of neuropsychological tests over time, to allow objective monitoring of patients’ thinking skills. We also undertake research addressing questions regarding the neural architecture of cognitive domains, such as frontal executive functions, memory and language, and the characterisation of specific neurological conditions.

Support services for staff

The perceived availability of direct psychological support for staff is crucial for psychological wellbeing in times of crisis (e.g. Khalid et al., 2016). Hence, we have established a psychological support service for all staff. We have developed twice-weekly, face-to-face, walk-in clinics and daily telephone clinics. Our experience, so far, indicates that staff members greatly appreciate our support services. Despite the fact that our services started very recently, we have good intake that continues to increase.

Recent studies emerging from China specifically focusing on the COVID-19 emergency reported that overall there was little uptake of formalised psychological support (Chen et al., 2020; Zhu et al., 2020). It remains unclear what type of support is most effective. Some studies have suggested that it is more helpful to focus on enabling staff members to meet their basic needs: health (adequate PPE), shelter (especially if having to isolate from family members), food and sleep (Chen et al., 2020; Khalid et al., 2016; Khee et al., 2004). Some of these studies have relatively little data (Chen et al., 2020), include few or closed questions (Dai et al., 2020), and/or non-anonymised data collection (Lee et al., 2005; Khee et al., 2004). These factors may somewhat limit the generalizability of their findings. Notably, no formal study has assessed staff members’ psychological needs during crisis in the UK. Therefore, we have developed an online survey to assess staff members’ distress and psychological needs, including access to basic provisions and usual coping strategies, as well as desire for informal or formal psychological support. The data will help us refine our support service response and inform future practice.

Neuropsychological services for inpatients

The Department has developed a highly specialised service to meet the demands of the increased number of acute stroke and neurosurgical inpatients within the time constraints of a very fast medical environment. We continue to provide comprehensive cognitive assessment where necessary, while also adopting a briefer specialist assessment model that draws upon previous work (e.g. Chan et al., 2019). In addition, we have developed a fast-turnaround reporting system to support early discharge and strengthened our work with multi-disciplinary teams to provide support for complex cognitive and behavioural difficulties. The quick discharge of patients with significant cognitive impairment has resulted in patients receiving only minimal rehabilitation in hospital. To support rehabilitation planning, we have focussed on building stronger links and outreaching to community services and relevant charity organizations such as Stroke Association.

Neuropsychological services for outpatients

Outpatient diagnostic services have been significantly delayed resulting in reduced care for patients with chronic and life-limiting neurological conditions. However, acknowledging that some assessments remain essential even during these times, we are continuing to provide face-to-face outpatient cognitive assessments for all urgent cases, with both clinicians and patients wearing PPE. We have deemed this to be necessary given the limited empirical evidence for either the validity or utility of diagnostic tele-neuropsychology (e.g. Bunnage et al., 2020).

For outpatients who have little social contact, isolation and delayed clinical care threatens to create a pandemic of loneliness (Armitage & Nellums, 2020; Van Bavel et al., In Press). The impact of this, exacerbated by increased exposure to negative framing within the media, will heighten stress responses. This may have a potential catastrophic impact upon mental health outcomes (Garfin et al., 2020). As far as we are aware, there are no evidence-based guidelines on how to manage patients’ distress at this time. Nonetheless, it is clear that patients need to be supported. Hence, we are offering all patients offered a rescheduled neuropsychological outpatient appointment a telephone consultation for interim psychological support. To relieve the burden upon already stretched clinical nurse specialists, GPs, community teams and voluntary sector helplines, we have also extended this service to all of the NHNN outpatients and stroke patients within North Central London.

Furthermore, those who had psychological difficulties before the current COVID-19 crisis are most vulnerable to exacerbated distress (Duan & Zhu, 2020). Therefore, we have not stopped any ongoing neuropsychological therapies and continue to accept all new routine referrals for ongoing psychological support. These appointments have now been converted to telephone clinics.

Support services for patients’ families and carers

For family members of inpatients with neurological conditions and/or COVID-19, we have started providing telephone consultations. For families and carers of stroke and neurosurgical patients, we have developed telephone psychoeducation about cognitive and emotional sequelae, and signposting for any ongoing needs.

Conclusion

In sum, we hope that our new support services not only contain and mitigate psychological distress, but also will allow us to research the psychological needs of staff, patients, their families and carers. By redesigning our existing neuropsychological services, we do not delay, but instead respond rapidly to the significant changes and increased demands caused by the COVID-19 emergency. These new services may be helpful in providing empirical evidence to determine which interventions are most useful. This will in turn inform future guidelines, should we have to face a resurgence of COVID-19 or another pandemic.

References

Armitage, R. & Nellums, L.B. (2020). COVID-19 and the consequences of isolating the elderly. The Lancet. Public Health; Mar 20.

Bunnage, M., Evans, J., Wright, I., Thomas, S., Vargha-Khadem, F., Poz, R., Wilson, C & Moore, P (2020). Division of Neuropsychology Professional Standards Unit Guidelines to colleagues on the use of Tele-neuropsychology. Division of Neuropsychology, British Psychological Society; Apr 20.

Chan, E., Garritsen, E., Altendorff, S., Turner, D., Simister, R., Werring, D. J., & Cipolotti, L. (2019). Additional Queen Square (QS) screening items improve the test accuracy of the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) after acute stroke. Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 407, 116442.

Chen, Q., Liang, M., Li, Y., Guo, J., Fei, D., Wang, L., He, L., Sheng, C., Cai, Y., Li, X. & Wang, J.(2020). Mental health care for medical staff in China during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7, e15-e16.

Dai, Y., Hu, G., Xiong, H., Qiu, H. & Yuan, X. (2020). Psychological impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak on healthcare workers in China. medRxiv.

Duan, L. & Zhu, G. (2020). Psychological interventions for people affected by the COVID-19 epidemic. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7, 300-302.

Garfin, D. R., Silver, R. C., & Holman, E. A. (2020). The novel coronavirus (COVID-2019) outbreak: Amplification of public health consequences by media exposure. Health Psychology; Mar 23.

Khalid, I., Khalid, T. J., Qabajah, M. R., Barnard, A. G. & Qushmaq, I. A. (2016). Healthcare workers emotions, perceived stressors and coping strategies during a MERS-CoV outbreak. Clinical Medicine & Research, 14, 7-14.

Khee, K. S., Lee, L. B., Chai, O. T., Loong, C. K., Ming, C. W., & Kheng, T. H. (2004). The psychological impact of SARS on health care providers. Critical Care and Shock, 100-106.

Lee, S. H., Juang, Y. Y., Su, Y. J., Lee, H. L., Lin, Y. H., & Chao, C. C. (2005). Facing SARS: psychological impacts on SARS team nurses and psychiatric services in a Taiwan general hospital. General Hospital Psychiatry, 27, 352-358.

Van Bavel, J. J., Boggio, P., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., Crockett, M., Crum, A., Douglas, K., Druckman, J., Drury, J. & Ellemers, N. (In Press). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature Human Behavior.

Zhu, Z., Xu, S., Wang, H., Liu, Z., Wu, J., Li, G., Miao, J., Zhang, C., Yang, Y., Sun, W. & Zhu, S. (2020). COVID-19 in Wuhan: Immediate Psychological Impact on 5062 Health Workers. medRxiv.