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Institute of Mental Health



Archive for the 'Mental Health' Category

Do mental health awareness events reduce mental health problems? We don’t know but we must find out

By iomh, on 10 March 2023

A calendar open on the month of May. Credit: Tony Slade © Creative Media Services

In our final blog marking University Mental Health Day, Lucy Foulkes looks at the concept of awareness days or weeks and asks whether we are doing enough to measure their outcomes.  

Yesterday was University Mental Health Day: a day designed to draw attention to student mental health and make it a university-wide priority. It’s a distinct day because of its student focus, but there are many such campaigns trying to put mental health on the map. In February it was Children’s Mental Health Week, followed by Eating Disorders Awareness Week. In May, it’s the more generalised Mental Health Awareness Week; in July, National Schizophrenia Day; and in October we go global, with World Mental Health Day. Every day, it seems, is mental health awareness day.


University Mental Health Charter Award – how was it for you?

By iomh, on 9 March 2023

UCL is one of the first five universities to receive the University Mental Health Charter Award following an application involving academics, professional services staff and students. In this post, representatives from across UCL describe the process and the importance of the award.


University Mental Health Day – An opportunity to think about our own mental health and wellbeing?

By iomh, on 8 March 2023

A student studying in a library at UCL. credit: Mat Wright
Researchers need to pay attention to the impact of the content of their work on themselves. credit: Mat Wright

The discoveries and positive impacts of academic research can give researchers great job satisfaction but the role also brings stresses that pose a risk to their mental health. University mental health day is a chance for researchers to reflect on these, write Helen Nicholls, Jo Billings and Danielle Lamb.

Mental wellbeing at work has been relatively neglected until very recently, despite working age adults spending on average 35% of their waking hours at work and 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. We know that good work can be good for mental health, but that poor working environments – including discrimination and inequality, excessive workloads, lack of resources, limited job control and job insecurity – can pose a risk to mental health.


Children’s Mental Health and the Permacrisis

By iomh, on 6 March 2023

After living through an extended period of turbulence, how are our children and young people coping? Charlotte Burdge and Tamsin Ford highlight what the research reveals and how we can better support our young people.

Clockwise: Main Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/child-taking-classes-online-4261786/, Charlotte Burdge, Tamsin Ford
Main Photo: Child home schooling, by August de Richelieu from Pexels, Top right Charlotte Burdge, Bottom right: Tamsin Ford

The mental health of children and young people deteriorated over the last decade, particularly among young women in their mid-teens and early twenties, who were more likely to struggle with anxiety, depression and self-harm than previously. This may come as no surprise, considering today’s children and young people have lived through what could be called a permacrisis; or an extended period of uncertainty and instability resulting from a chain of catastrophic events. Those born since the Millennium have experienced – directly or indirectly – severe financial crises, COVID-19, war, and increased global insecurity. Many young people have also voiced concerns about their own prospects for longer-term issues such as climate change, political instability, and the cost-of-living crisis


A ‘full circle’ moment – student to supervisor

By iomh, on 15 February 2023

From making discoveries that change the world, to supporting students as they navigate university life, academic roles can be rewarding, but also emotionally draining. UCL’s Head of Workplace Wellbeing, Sally Belcher outlines how dedicated workplace health teams and researchers have come together to support the mental health of members of staff.   

World Mental Health Day is recognised annually on 10 October. It is a day that encourages everyone to reflect on their own mental health, and that of those around them. This year’s theme of ‘Mental health is a universal human right’ means ensuring mental health is treated equitably and with the same respect and dignity as that of a physical injury. Working in Workplace Health, especially around the time of World Mental Health Day is an opportunity to improve knowledge and raise awareness of staff but it also serves as a stark reminder on how far we as a society have to go.

The ‘Supporting Staff Wellbeing in Higher Education’ (2021) paper, reported that, ‘the overall level of emotional exhaustion was high. More than six respondents out of ten (65.3%) reported feeling emotionally drained from their work at least ‘once a week. with academic staff also perceiving ‘a poorer psychosocial safety climate in their institution and a higher degree of stigmatisation surrounding mental health issues.’

These findings highlight that staff within higher education are suffering while at work. However mental health of staff in higher education is multi-faceted. Staff in student facing roles often feel ill equipped to support students with their own mental health and lack the boundaries needed to protect their own wellbeing.

Professor Jo Billings, Division of Psychiatry, UCL remarks: ‘Working in academia can be incredibly rewarding, but is not without significant stressors, including high workloads, competitive fundings processes and job insecurity (Nicholls et al., 2022). The recently established Mental Health at Work SIG was formed to bring together researchers on workplace mental health and those with an interest in the mental health and wellbeing of researchers in academia.

Dr Jen Dykxhoorn and Professor James Kirkbride, UCL Division of Psychiatry
Dr Jen Dykxhoorn and Professor James Kirkbride

Last month, Professor James Kirkbride and I were awarded a prestigious Mental Health Research UK (MHRUK) scholarship to recruit a PhD student to explore the causes of health and social inequalities in psychiatric disorders.

This research will focus on understanding the causal links between severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorders in socially excluded and historically marginalised groups.

This research will use novel causal inference methods to better understand what social factors increase the risk of severe mental illnesses in different population groups. Understanding the causes of mental illnesses is required to inform prevention efforts to reduce the rates of severe mental illnesses in society.


IoMH International Conference 2022 – Reflecting the complex, nuanced and multifaceted nature of mental health research

By iomh, on 26 October 2022

This blog was written by Freya Robb, Senior Press Officer for Science Media Centre

The third Institute of Mental Health International Conference took place on the 21st September 2022. This was the first time the conference had been held in person and was a sell-out event.

Led by its Director, Professor Anthony David, the UCL Institute of Mental Health was created to bring together the best interdisciplinary research to help tackle mental illness. This year’s conference aimed to reflect this broad and diverse approach, covering some key topics of interest that are at the forefront of public discussion and interest.


Special Interest Group in Social Cognition and Behaviour

By iomh, on 10 October 2022

This blog was written by Dr Andrew Sommerlad, co-lead of the SIG in Social Cognition and Behaviour, for World Mental Health Day 2022. 

two heads looking at each other with visual vibrations in between the two

Having effective social cognition and social behaviour is central to people being able to integrate with others and form meaningful and supportive social groups. It is therefore essential for maintaining personal happiness and achievement and for wider societal cohesion. However, social cognition and behaviour is affected by many disease states, including neuro-developmental, affective and neurodegenerative disorders, leading to damaging effects on quality of life. Understanding what determines successful social cognition and behaviour and what leads to it becoming impaired has a range of potentially important impacts, from guiding development of new treatments and social policy, to fostering a deepened understanding of human nature.

Social cognition and behaviour is a research focus for UCL academics spanning numerous faculties and departments, and its treatment is a priority for many clinicians in our associated NHS trusts. The scope of this research is wide and varied, encompassing different populations and disease areas, and using a broad range of theoretical and methodological approaches. This means that there is a lot to be learnt from each other.

We therefore established the UCL Institute of Mental Health Special Interest Group (SIG) in Social Cognition and Behaviour to bring together researchers and clinicians who are interested in understanding social cognition and behaviour. We want the SIG to strengthen capacity and collaboration across UCL in research into this area, by providing a forum for academics and clinicians to share their disciplinary perspectives and expertise. We wish to promote discussion and exchange of ideas to encourage interdisciplinary thinking and foster productive relationships in social cognition and behaviour research.

group of different coloured drawings of stick people in a circle

Our SIG currently comprises over 50 members and we have begun to support our aims through our inaugural meeting in September 2022, which we held face to face at UCL to facilitate networking. The meeting showcased the depth and breadth of social cognition and behaviour research at UCL through, first, keynote presentations on the importance of social touch in regulating social and affective needs, and on the social behavioural experience of people with autism during the COVID-19 pandemic, and then flash presentations from 15 academics across UCL. Our MS Teams channel is a forum open to all SIG members to enable us to share resources, and information about funding and conferences, and supervisory opportunities. We will continue working towards our aims through future seminars and other activities.

We want to build this network, so if you are interested in joining our special interest group, please contact us via dop.socialsig@ucl.ac.uk, and join our Teams team. We will keep you updated about all future SIG activities, and we would welcome any suggestions about what the SIG can do to help your social cognition and behaviour research.

Reflections from the first meeting of IoMH Special Interest Group in Social Cognition and Behaviour

By iomh, on 12 September 2022

This blog was written by UCL PhD Student and Social Cognition and Behaviour SIG member, Sara De Felice.

On Wednesday 7th Sept, the Social Cognition and Behaviour Special Interest Group (SIG) hosted its first meeting at UCL.  The SCB is a group of researchers within the Institute of Mental Health from many disciplines who share an interest in improving understanding of the nature and consequences of social cognition and social behaviour in health and disease.  Group meetings aim to strengthen research capacity and enable networking in this area across UCL.

The first SIG meeting was forum for UCL academics, young researchers and clinicians to meet and discuss research. Over 50 attendees were welcomed by Prof Antonia Hamilton and Dr Andrew Sommerlad, who chaired the event. They both outlined the scope of the SIG and how it fits within the Institute of Mental Health, including driving the attention to supports available in the forms of small grants (here and here). After that, they gave space to the two keynote speakers, Prof Katerina Fotopoulou and Prof Elizabeth Pellicano.

The first talk was given by Prof Katerina Fotopoulou, who stressed the importance social touch in understanding ourselves as humans, our healthy development and formation of cognitive structures as well as the ability to regulate our social and affective needs. She also presented the case of anosognosia and other clinical groups as a window to study social (embodied) cognition and its mechanisms more generally. Her talk highlighted that our body – as a tool to interact with the environment and others – has a key role in shaping our social cognition and the sense of self more generally. Prof Fotopoulou did so by presenting decades of works by her and others, ending with recent data collected during the unique circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, characterised by highly virtual connection with concurrent lack of physical connection.

The second keynote speaker Prof Elizabeth Pellicano shared with the group an original insight into how people with Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC), both adults and young people, experienced the social isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Far from the stereotypical and over simplistic – yet widespread – belief that ASC is characterised by asocial behaviour and even a sense of enjoyment from being isolated, Prof Pellicano showed how people with ASC experienced the prolonged isolation imposed by the Australian government as a very challenging time. In particular, she presented a series of informative extracts from adults and adolescents who shared their struggles as they were forced to isolate for months, without meeting friends and family, and away from even the most accidental encounters in their daily life. Her work highlighted the importance of social contact as part of a healthy life, across age groups and neuro-diverse cohorts.

Flash talk by Peter Hsu

Following the two keynote speakers’ talks, academics, young researchers and clinicians introduced themselves to the SIG in a series of ‘flash’ talks, where each presenter outlined their research expertise, area of interests and potential routes for collaborations in 2 minutes. During this section the diversity and multidisciplinary approaches to social cognition research at UCL clearly emerged. In particular, Peter Hsu is working on the impact of body-specific social rejection on body-related risk aversion; Dr Marco Wittman is working on maintaining individuality while being part of social groups in neurotypical and autistic cohorts; Max Maier is interested in social and cognitive psychology with focus on topics related to effective altruism and is working on publication bias in research on construal level theory; Dr Giedrė Čepukaitytė is working on the EDoN platform to identify social behaviour markers of early neurodegenerative disease; Dr Lucy Chisman-Russell studies social cognition dysfunction in frontotemporal dementia; Aygun Badalova is developing Gotcha!, a proper-name anomia therapy app for people with dementia; Prof Gabriella Vigliocco is leading research on dyadic interactions and multimodal (verbal and non-verbal) communication in adults and children; Dr Daniel Richardson is leading a series of experiments to study how others influence and shape our behaviours; Nadescha Trudel is working on decision making and how it differs in social and non-social contexts; Benedict Greenwood (working with Prof Sarah Garfinkel) is mapping autonomic signals and their contribution to emotional and cognitive features of ADHD; Sara De Felice is working on neuroimaging of dyadic social interactions and learning; Dr Andrew Sommerlad is working on social functioning in dementia; and Prof Antonia Hamilton is leading work to understand the cognitive mechanisms of naturalistic social interactions.

The ‘flash’ talks were followed by a discussion that engaged the whole audience on the themes that emerged during the presentations, as well as raising some relevant questions such as how the SIG could best support their members, including ways to strengthen clinical and academic collaborations within the community. Feedback suggested the need to produce an ‘academic database’ of experts in different areas within the field of social cognition, providing an easy-to-consult source for potential collaborations in different projects. Also, the idea of a Teams Channel was welcomed with enthusiasm, including the suggestion of a shared calendar for relevant conference events as well as grant key dates for the SIG members to consult as needed.

To find out more about this group and future meeting dates, or if you want to get involved or simply contact us about an idea for this SIG, please visit our page.

Reflections from the first meeting of IoMH Special Interest Group in Psychological Trauma

By iomh, on 6 July 2022

nurse on bed head in hands

This blog was written by UCL Division of Psychiatry PhD Student, Ava Mason.

The Institute of Mental Health (IoMH) Special Interest Group in Psychological Trauma is an interdisciplinary group of UCL researchers and clinicians from our partner NHS trusts. The meetings within this group aim to provide opportunities for collaboration between academics and clinicians, raise the visibility of trauma research at UCL and develop a UCL-wide ‘trauma strategy’. The first meeting included a range of hot topic talks, whereby each of the members discussed their research or clinical focus to the 150 attendees.

Dr Michael Bloomfield who chaired the event explained how one third of individuals who experience psychosis have also experienced previous childhood trauma. Reporting recent results from a large multi-site international study, he stated that 69.9% of participants who had experienced childhood trauma and had an at-risk mental state also had undiagnosed PTSD or complex PTSD. Relating to trauma experienced by children in care, Dr Rachel Hiller discussed key work currently being conducted investigating transdiagnostic predictors of mental health outcomes.  This work could help to develop feasible and effective interventions and inform future service decision making for those in care.

The next hot topic was presented by Shirley McNicholas, who discussed multiple ways in which trauma informed care could be implemented, specifically referring to the women-only Drayton Park crisis house.  She discussed how the environment can be used as a therapeutic tool to help people feel safe, while environment seen as punishing and criminalising negatively impacts women who require support. Trauma informed care also involves helping people connect the past to the present to intervene appropriately, reducing misdiagnosis, inappropriate care planning and compounding self-isolation and shame.  A trauma informed organisational approach within Camden and Islington was then emphasised by Dr Philippa Greenfield.

model for trauma informed organisational change

She discussed the need to increase trauma informed culture embedded within all services and wider communities.  This involves challenging inequality and addressing secondary trauma in the workforce and with patients and acknowledging the impact of adversity and inequality on physical and mental health. Currently, trauma informed collaborative and Hubs have been established to help manage change from within organisations and monthly trauma informed training is being run for staff, service users and carers.

Dr Jo Billings highlighted the considerable impact of occupational trauma within the workplace.  Within the peak of the pandemic, this phenomenon had increased research focus, with studies finding 58% of workers meeting criteria for anxiety, depression, or PTSD.  Within global research on police workers, 25.7% drank hazardously and 14.2% met criteria for PTSD. Focusing on UK research on 253 mental health professionals, high rates of burnout and secondary traumatic stress have been reported.  Strategies that could mitigate this include increased reflective supervision, minimising work exposure where ethically possible and identifying individuals who may be at most risk.

Relating to plasticity enhanced psychotherapy, Dr Ravi Das discussed the importance of research aiming to improve synergy between drug and psychological treatments. Current medication for PTSD does not target causal mechanisms of PTSD, which may explain why many individuals with PTSD do not find medication effective. Drugs like Ketamine block NMDA receptors critical to memory formation and restores lost synaptic plasticity, preventing trauma memories from stabilising. This allows the memory and cognitions of the event to be altered during therapy. Future research should focus on specific medication that target mechanism of change itself to increase the effectiveness of PTSD treatments.

Dr Talya Greene discussed the impact of mass trauma, whereby the same event or a series of traumas affect many people at the same time. The current health system is not built to provide support to many individuals at once following an event, especially when the health workers themselves may be affected by the incident. Additionally, those that are affected by the event vary in many ways, from their cultural, mental health and trauma backgrounds to the way in which they were mentally or physically affected by the event itself. Focus is needed on the effects of early trauma responses on future health outcomes, and how to target groups that don’t normally access support due to physical difficulties or cultural background. Additionally, the current evidence base needs to be increased to see what may be effective specifically in the context of mass trauma settings.

Dr Mary Robertson and Dr Sue Farrier discussed various specialist services within Camden and Islington. One of these was the traumatic stress clinic, working with patients who have a history of complex trauma, including trafficking victims, war and conflict refugees, and individuals with a history of child abuse. The service helps to stabilise the individual before considering which trauma focused individual or group intervention to provide. Additionally, Operation Courage is the term used to describe several Veterans specialist mental health services. They offer comprehensive holistic assessment, referral to local services and in house social support, pharmacological and psychological treatment. These veteran services aim to offer quick support, working alongside statutory and non-statutory agencies where care is shaped by the service users. Alcohol and substance misuse is not seen as a barrier for treatment access, and services also provide peer support and consultation for carers and family.

The audience raised some relevant questions for the panel to discuss, such as how best to strengthen clinical and academic collaborations. Feedback suggested the need to quickly produce trauma informed digestible research that can be rapidly synthesised and relayed back to clinicians. The main barrier to this being a fundamental need for more funding to create a working relationship between academic and clinical services. Within under resourced clinical services, a network approach is required so clinicians can codevelop research questions with other colleagues and trainees to reduce research workload. The need to listen to the voice of marginalised groups within research was also discussed. This involves building a trusting relationship between researchers and BAME groups, to collaborate with service users and consider the impact of historical racism, family dynamics and cultural impact within trauma research. The panel also suggested ways to reduce occupational trauma through having a cohesive team where people can build resilience and support through integrating coping mechanism individually and as a team.

Lastly, Ana Antunes-Martins discussed the Institute of Mental Health Small Grants, providing funding for interdisciplinary teams of all mental health areas, prioritising applications focusing on mechanistic understanding of mental health.

The next meeting will focus more on some of the relevant points raised within this meeting, as well as potential collaboration opportunities. To find out more about this group (and future meeting dates) please visit: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/mental-health/special-interest-group-psychological-trauma 

Loneliness and isolation in young people: how can we improve interventions and reduce stigma?

By iomh, on 5 May 2022

This blog was written by first-year UCL-Wellcome Mental Health Science PhD Student, Anna Hall, for Mental Health Awareness Week 2022. This year’s theme is on Loneliness. 

teenage girl looking our of window

There are few people who have never experienced loneliness, whether it was a brief feeling that naturally passed or a more chronic experience we had to work to overcome. In 2018, the BBC Loneliness Experiment found that, of all age groups in the UK, young people aged 16 to 24 years report feeling the loneliest. Loneliness is a distressing feeling, and chronic loneliness is associated with a range of physical and mental health conditions, including heart disease and depression. It is therefore important that we reduce these feelings in young people, and I was interested in understanding how we can best achieve this.

I had the exciting opportunity to work with Dr Alexandra Pitman who co-leads the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Network. As I became more familiar with existing research, it became clear that few loneliness interventions focus on young people in the general population. Those that do have varying effectiveness and young people are not very drawn to them. Given the high prevalence in this age group, I was struck by this lack of interventions and motivated to contribute to improvement.

bbc loneliness survey logo

BBC Loneliness Experiment

We analysed data from 16 to 18 year olds who answered two questions regarding loneliness interventions in the BBC Loneliness Experiment. This was a large online international survey released in 2018 with wide media attention. This qualitative method of analysis, analysing free-text responses, was another element of the project which particularly excited me. I have always used quantitative methods in my research, using statistics to analyse numerical data, so I was interested to see what we can learn from qualitative methods. I quickly learnt that these methods are incredibly insightful!

We found that adolescents suggested strategies very similar to those currently employed in loneliness interventions, such as increasing social connections, changing the way they think about themselves and others, and improving social skills. However, many adolescents also described strategies to change how they experience solitude, including changing the way they think about spending time alone. As adults, we recognise that enjoying time alone is an important life skill. We may assume that this way of thinking is too mature for adolescents, but our study suggests otherwise. It may therefore be beneficial for interventions to incorporate strategies which highlight the distinction between spending time alone and feeling lonely, and provide adolescents with ways to enjoy solitude.

The findings from my project have not only been insightful in terms of helping to improve loneliness interventions but have also helped me to think more about the way we approach mental health research more broadly.

Whilst we were able to group the responses into four main categories, the specific details of responses varied. Every individual had their own ideas about what was helpful, and what was helpful for one person was specifically unhelpful for another. I therefore think that personalisation of interventions for loneliness may be beneficial. This is a huge challenge for researchers and clinicians as we are unclear exactly what works for who and why, and this is a complex question to answer. However, I believe it is an important goal if we are to develop effective interventions for loneliness and mental health difficulties.

We also found that some adolescents described hiding their true feelings of loneliness, possibly in fear of stigmatising views from others. As I learnt in my project, researchers are best able to understand loneliness and mental health by talking to the individuals we are trying to help. These individuals are also important in helping us design our studies and interpret results. However, many people may not feel comfortable talking about their experiences due to fear of stigmatising views. This presents a barrier to conducting applied research and developing effective interventions, and one that we must overcome.

Finally, this project taught me the importance of using different methods in mental health research. I completed my MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience and have always been an advocate of brain imaging and statistics, believing that mental health research should always use numbers. From this project, I have learnt that qualitative methods are vital if we are to understand mental health. We get caught up in conducting good science and following our research ideas that we can forget we are ultimately mental health researchers aiming to help individuals who are lonely or struggling with mental illness. Qualitative methods allow us to better understand individuals’ experiences and explore what would help them. This is not to say that quantitative methods are not useful. Whilst it will be challenging, I believe that mental health research must adopt an interdisciplinary approach and combine methods to progress our understanding and improve care.

Being a part of the UCL-Wellcome Mental Health Science PhD has meant that I am already surrounded by passionate researchers who are trying to tackle these challenges. I have been encouraged to undertake projects exploring topics and methods which I have no prior experience. Whilst the prospect initially seemed daunting, it has been hugely rewarding; I have been able to develop my skills and ideas and have been supported every step of the way. My previous enthusiasm for cognitive neuroscience has not waned but I am now considering how I can incorporate these new methods to complement my research ideas. We have also been lucky enough to gain clinical experience in mental health services around London, exposing me to the challenges faced by mental health services and patients trying to access support. This has been invaluable in encouraging me to consider how best to conduct research to benefit patients and contribute to public policy to improve service provision.

Above the professional aspects, the programme has bought me together with a cohort of inspiring researchers and new friends. A PhD can be a lonely experience. I am grateful to be part of a programme that fosters a supportive and friendly environment within the cohort and the wider academic community, and I am excited to meet everyone who joins us along the way.

mental health awareness week, 9-13 may 2022 on loneliness

Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) takes place every year during the second week of May, hosted by the Mental Health Foundation. This MHAW will focus on raising awareness of the impact of loneliness on our mental wellbeing and the practical steps we can take to address it. Follow online via #MHAW2022 #IveBeenThere

Further links: