Another step forward – Research into wellbeing networks

The places we go, the things we like to do and the people we know all play an important contribution to our wellbeing. Yet, this is not a key focus of current clinical mental health interventions. We are hoping our research will change this. That’s why over the past 5 years the McPin Foundation has been progressing various projects that look at how the resources in an individual’s network impact their wellbeing.

Our research into personal wellbeing networks has just been published online in the British Journal of Psychiatry. It is open access, so accessible to all who want to read it.  The journal is one of the world’s leading psychiatric academic publications, considered essential reading for psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and all with an interest in mental health. This allows our research to reach a different audience than through the other methods we readily use such as blogs, summaries, newsletters and social media.  We hope a practitioner audience find it interesting, and begin to take on board how personal wellbeing mapping as an approach may helpfully support people with ongoing mental health needs.

What is personal wellbeing mapping?

Personal wellbeing mapping is when you look at connections in peoples’ lives not only through social networks of friends, family, practitioners and colleagues, but also other connections to places regularly visited and the activities someone engages in. We came up with the term and use it to try to emphasise three things about working in this way:

  • The maps are highly personalised to individuals. No two maps will be the same.
  • There is an interest in connections that impact, positively, negatively or neutrally, on people’s wellbeing.
  • An understanding of how networks of connections – the places people go, the people they know and activities they do – link up and that mapping them is a useful way to visually document and talk about things that are important to each individual.

For our study we explored the personal wellbeing networks of 150 people with ongoing mental health needs. The study was carried out in partnership with Plymouth University, Clinical Trials & Health Research – Institute of Translational & Stratified Medicine. Most social network studies have focused on social contacts alone and risk feeding a normative view that ‘bigger is better’ which we were keen to avoid. We have expanded the concept of a social network in order to recognise that connections to places and activities are also valuable, and can contribute to an individual’s wellbeing and management of wellbeing, such as when considering social isolation and loneliness.


What did we find?

We found a variety of networks, from those with a rich and complex set of connections to those with very few.  Even where people mapped few connections, the mapping process unearthed a wide array of interests and there were conversations about identity and ideas for change. Some of those with smaller networks had carefully pruned their connections to remove stressful connections, and it was also clear from the data that different types of networks might be useful at different times.


What next?

Can this research improve our understanding of mental health and approaches to providing support? While on its own it does not provide a strong evidence base for change, combined with other ongoing work, it can.

The McPin Foundation are working with on a study with University College London developing a community navigator approach, to support people with depression and anxiety address experiences of loneliness. A community navigator works with an individual over 10 sessions, and this includes a mapping activity as a way of opening up a conversation between them both and exploring opportunities in the local community for trying out new things. We are also involved in another study with the University of York that is working along similar lines through community mental health teams to implement a “Connecting People” programme. Again a mapping exercise is an optional part of the model. These are not full personal wellbeing mapping exercises but we can still learn from their experience.

Our complete personal wellbeing mapping approach is being progressed within the Hounslow Wellbeing Network, and a small research study in Southwark and Sutton. We have also made friends with other researchers working outside of mental health, who are interested in networks and the management of long term conditions. We encourage you to look at their genie approach.

Our hope is that in the next 2 to 3 years we will have further tested our personal wellbeing mapping approach, and found out if helps place people with ongoing mental health needs, as experts in their own mental health care, at the centre of their own recovery planning. And we will have interested other people in our work as well.

More information on our wellbeing networks research can be found on our website