By Cynthia Joyce, Chief Executive, MQ: Transforming Mental Health

Published: 20 November 2017

At the recent APPG on Medical Research breakfast roundtable, titled “How can the UK become a world leader in research into mental health and multi-morbidities to improve outcomes for those affected?”, Cynthia Joyce, Chief Executive of MQ: Transforming Mental Health, spoke about the challenges facing research in this area.

The UK is already a world-leader in mental health research and care – and in the attention paid to co-morbid conditions. And it is because of this that we have before us a very real case for doing even better – to deliver desperately needed hope and change.

But for that story to be written, we need ambitious action – in three vital areas.

  • We need to make mental health research a national priority to tackle historic underfunding
  • We need to deliver a step-change in the ways we utilise mental health data
  • And we need to build a movement focused more closely than ever before on young people’s mental health.

With the Government’s ten-year strategy for mental health research expected imminently, I want to share our vision of what we – politicians, policy-makers, charities, and the public – can do to finally give mental health research the support it needs to change lives. 

Firstly, the prioritising

Put simply, current funding of mental health research doesn’t begin to match the scale or impact of mental illness in the UK.

Overall, only £8 is spent on research per person affected by mental illness in the UK. That’s twenty-two times less than the per-person spend for cancer (£178) and fourteen times less than dementia spend (£110). 

But we know that through Government action, this can be changed. Yes, this does mean sustained and increased funding, but it’s also about leadership.

History has shown us that the biggest shifts in healthcare – improvements in outcomes, treatment advances, and yes, erosion of stigma – have come when research is prioritised by Government and policy-makers, when industry is engaged, and when the public is inspired to be a part of change. 

If we just look at what has been achieved in the ‘war on cancer’ or, more recently, with dementia – we can see the impact that Government leadership can have. Indeed, the Government’s Dementia Challenge promised vital funding for dementia research. But, importantly, it drove action in the research community and led to huge increases in public support.

This can be a good route-map for mental health too. But to build support, we also need to demonstrate the true potential of research.

Secondly, we need to deliver a step-change in the way we utilise mental health data 

Breakthroughs in understanding and treating conditions like cancer have been transformed through big data – but its potential has not yet been met in mental health.

As we all know, a wealth of data exists. The NHS is the jewel in the crown, providing rich insight into the clinical experience of mental illness. The UK is also fortunate to have globally-recognised bioinformatics capabilities, thanks to significant investment and support. And, of course, new technologies and companies like Facebook & Google are finding ways to translate everyday life into research data.

The challenge, now, is to bring these together to deliver the much-needed advances that benefit public health. We’re pleased to see that UK plans – across the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy, the seven Research Councils, and the Government’s Department of health – include strong recommendations around optimising our use of data. We need to coordinate these efforts into a mental health juggernaut – and a force for turning research into practice. 

What must happen next, then, is the connecting-up of mental health data initiatives with those taking place in other fields. Data science is the fastest and least expensive way to learn how mental health and co-morbidities affect outcomes – and our financial bottom line. 

To achieve these ambitions, we need to ensure that data research in the UK is fully enabled and trustworthy systems established. This means getting the Data Protection Bill right for research and fulfilling the recommendations of the National Data Guardian. 

Recently, at MQ, we launched a major new initiative to build a standing platform for young people’s data research – a ground-breaking project that can facilitate the collection and use of administrative and research data to transform what we know about young people’s mental health and help us identify areas where we can transform care. 

The final important step needed - a new focus on young people’s mental health research

If we want to make the biggest impact for the future of mental health, we need to focus on where mental health conditions begin – in young people. For too long, we have resisted orienting our work around the fact that 75% of mental health problems begin in teenage years.

And despite the fact that most illness starts before the age of eighteen, less than 30% of the UK’s total mental health research spend is focused on children and young people.

Our mental health interventions and services are simply not designed or developed for young people; and the end result is poor treatment outcomes and a growing national mental health problem. Looking around the world, we are not alone in this situation; but we, more than almost any other nation, have an opportunity to change it, if we so choose. 

If we want to deliver on good intentions, we need research to be at the centre of funding and policy developments.

At MQ, we’re proud to have made young people’s mental health a core research focus. We recently launched our Brighter Futures programme to deliver ground-breaking research that’s focused on understanding predictive factors involved in the development of illness; and a commitment to turn these findings into new tools for clinicians and patients to use in getting effective help.

Through research, we can improve the outlook of young people affected by mental health conditions. And we can transform families and communities. And at the end of the day, that’s why we’re all here. We’re in this business to change lives – for the better. By focusing on those three areas – prioritisation, data and young people’s mental health – changing lives is exactly what we’ll do.