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Why collaboration is the key to the future of mental health research

McPin Deputy Research Director Dan Robotham shares his experiences of working with the UKRI mental health research networks, the importance of multidisciplinary research, what we can learn from the research reaction to COVID, and #MentalHealthResearchMatters

Dan Robotham

I remember when the UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) mental health networks launched in 2018. They promised to bring together researchers with good ideas to initiate ‘interdisciplinary’ mental health research.

They wanted to encourage collaboration between the usual suspects (e.g., psychology, psychiatry, health sciences) and other disciplines which might be considered ‘peripheral’ to the area (e.g., history, engineering, geography, etc.).

This collaboration would allow funding to flow to a broader range of research teams. It was an interesting idea based on bringing people together, not funding large scale research but building small-scale grants programmes to allocate first grants to promising early career researchers.

This funding was different

I attended an early meeting when everything was in the planning stages, long before funding was allocated. The meeting was at Imperial War Museum (of all places).

It was packed with confused researchers and academics of all levels of seniority and from many different disciplines. This funding was different, and it was clear many people in the room saw the potential.

Looking back, the reason we were all confused is because we were all part of an experiment. The UKRI wanted us to build to connections, rather than to deliver a complex research project.

I remember speaking to people with research backgrounds in disciplines such as urban planning, linguistics, physics, and many others. There were a few other representatives from the charity sector too.

The value of having charity sector partners in their network was obvious to many academics present, and McPin soon found itself inundated with requests to join various network applications.

“Our priority setting research was an opportunity to learn from students, but also an opportunity to show them we value their experiences and want to include their voice within our work.”

Prof Helen Fisher, VAMHN co-lead

McPin’s involvement

In the end, McPin had a minor role in three out of the eight networks, a mention in another, and a more substantial role in curating and coordinating the impact of the networks through Mental Health Research Matters.

My role involved running some consultations for the Violence, Abuse and Mental Health Network (VAMHN), and being on the steering group for the Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN).

Both networks published major papers recently. VAMHN published an international collaboration on the importance of addressing intimate partner violence.

SMaRteN published their priority-setting exercise for research into student mental health. Both papers included people with lived experience throughout the process.

‘We wanted to include people with lived experience’

“Our priority setting research was an opportunity to learn from students, but also an opportunity to show them we value their experiences and want to include their voice within our work.

By engaging student peer researchers to contribute to the research activity itself, we further embedded this student voice.

Not only does this generate more relevant and robust findings, it also means future activity can be better targeted to actually suit the need of the communities we strive to support.”

Jo Ward, SMaRteN Network Coordinator

“From the outset of our network, we wanted to include people with lived experience of violence, abuse and/or mental health issues in deciding what questions were most important to tackle, how the network should go about addressing them, and the most appropriate ways to share what we learnt.

Our Lancet Psychiatry Commission on intimate partner violence and mental health is one example of this process in action – through the inclusion of several Commissioners with lived experience who led and contributed to the ideas and writing, providing personal accounts from people with lived experience throughout the publication, and prominently featuring the lived experience voice in promotional activities.

We still have a long way to go but we hope this means that the recommendations of the Commission are more likely to benefit those they are intended to support.”

Prof Helen Fisher, VAMHN co-lead

Mental health is a complex and fundamental topic that is relevant to many areas of society. It makes sense that such a topic would benefit from the expertise of people from as many perspectives as possible.

Complex topics require complex thinking

The best thing about the networks has been the variety of people from different research areas involved. This matched the UKRI’s original premise.

Mental health is a complex and fundamental topic that is relevant to many areas of society. It makes sense that such a topic would benefit from the expertise of people from as many perspectives as possible.

Thinking about it more widely, this is true for all the mammoth topics of our age (climate change, the rising cost of living, inequality, institutional racism, etc.). Complex topics require complex thinking, always.

The importance of interdisciplinary research

Of course, no one at the Imperial War Museum that day would have predicted that the world would be plunged into a pandemic a few years later (or perhaps they did, there were epidemiologists in the building after all).

COVID-19 provided a perfect demonstration of the importance of interdisciplinary research to solve a complex problem.

It was clear that the only route into a post-pandemic world would involve people from different disciplines collaborating, thinking outside their own field, and looking at the broader picture.

Researchers pooled their knowledge to communicate to the public. Researchers from many disciplines collaborated not just virologists and epidemiologists, but aerosol physicists, design experts, public health experts, data scientists, public communicators, and many others besides.

It showed the ridiculous nature of ‘silo’ thinking that can often affect researchers, particularly in academic institutions.  

A more open world?

Now that the networks are ending, I feel that the world is more open to the idea of transdisciplinary research than ever. Major funders such as Wellcome and the National Institute for Health Research have followed UKRI’s lead in calling for more interdisciplinarity in their funding streams.

The important thing for those working in ‘mental health’ (and yes, I am aware of the irony of silo-ing like that) is the continued importance to think beyond the usual suspects. Mental health as a discipline needs to look outside itself more than ever.

Later this year, McPin, on behalf of the networks, will launch the #MentalHealthResearchMatters campaign. We’ll talk about why mental health research matters, what good mental health research looks like and how we can all play our part in making a difference.

Unless mental health continues to embrace perspectives from outside the usual sphere…mental health research will stop mattering to those who need it most.

This will include the role of lived experience and co-production in mental health research. The campaign is a great opportunity and will embrace the interdisciplinarity that was inherent in the networks.

But we must not forget the lessons learnt during the pandemic, because unless mental health continues to embrace perspectives from outside the usual sphere, then mental health research will stop mattering to those who need it most; people living with mental health problems and experiencing complex layers of disadvantage in an increasingly hostile world.

Keep up to date with the campaign, launching on World Mental Health Day, by looking for updates MentalHealthResearchMatters.org.uk or following the hashtag #MentalHealthResearchMatters.

Find out more over at the campaign website


Dan Robotham is Deputy Research Director at the McPin Foundation

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