Everyone’s business: research councils unite on mental health

Last week, the UK research councils published their agenda for working in partnership on mental health research. For me, it is interesting to see how mental health has united all seven research councils, not just the traditional “key players” like the Medical Research Council (MRC, who have their own mental health research strategy) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The involvement of the councils for Arts & Humanities (AHRC), Engineering & Physical Sciences (EPSRC) and Environmental Sciences (NERC) show the universal importance of mental health. Working together with different organisations is not easy, and the research councils should be commended for what they are doing.

Of course, it is possible to criticise the document. The text is occasionally jarring (e.g., “The purpose of this research area is to improve understanding of an individual’s response, and adaptation to living with mental health problems”), and there is little explicit evidence of how people with experience of mental health problems have been involved to date (Patient and Public Involvement is listed as an ‘aspiration’ rather than as a central theme).

Ultimately, such criticism should be seen in light of the possibilities. This agenda is an example of mental health research generating investment and interest across different fields. Working across these fields might provide insights about how to involve people in research. When I speak to people outside health and social science about what McPin does, I’m often struck by how many parallel approaches there are to Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) in other fields. The health and social sciences could learn from engineering (for their expertise in ‘user experience design’), or the Arts (for how they engage communities). Personally, I welcome ideas from these disciplines. We can certainly learn from them.

So the question is, what happens now? The research councils are explicit that they have only launched an agenda, not a strategy. The process is at an early stage. What I would like to see are innovative ideas from different sectors to improve approaches to ‘Patient and Public Involvement’.. This would turn what is an agenda into research that benefits all those affected by mental health problems. The mental health sector has a wealth of experience in this area, but other sectors will have ideas too, and sometimes those ideas may be better than our own.