Inside Mental Health Research

For a lot of us, when we think about mental health we might think of names of mental health issues, statistics, or personal experiences. But this article will focus on uncovering what it’s like to research mental health.

Who are some of the people behind the process, what is the process really like and where is research in mental health heading?
I talked to Dr. Aja Murray whose research focuses on developmental aspects of mental health – specifically internal and external problems and their co-occurrences. Dr. Murray leads a few different projects around mental health, one of them being SMaRTeN which funds researchers and uses existing data collected for insights on students’ mental health. One of the findings of this work is that certain groups are more at risk of poorer mental health, such as non-U.K. born students. Though this is not necessarily surprising, it does help to show what demographics need focus when it comes to initiatives. Indeed, Dr. Murray suggested preventative initiatives in the transition to university focusing on the bigger picture were important, for example, checking on international students and making sure they feel supported.

Dr. Murray outlined her research goal is simply to be responsive to emerging challenges. There is no specific question she seeks to answer, simply understanding what are modifiable factors that can be used in improving students’ mental health. The direction of mental health research seems to be looking at inclusion of underrepresented groups, and factoring in that these groups may experience mistrust of health services. It appears the field is considering identity and historical contexts more when trying to understand mental health, which is always a positive.

Adding onto this, I spoke to three PhD students researching and specializing in this field, who get to experience being a student at Edinburgh whilst adding to the field. Hannah Casey, Amelia Edmondson-Stait, and Eileen Xu reveal that the day-to-day for a researcher is very coding heavy with limited patient interaction. This can create a disconnect around the quantitative data which is used, as they take heavily from existing data.

Casey’s main objective is figuring out the relationship between chronic pain and depression, as having one condition makes it likely for the other to occur. Similarly, Edmonson-Stait is focusing on looking out for underlying biology to treat psychiatric disorders instead of treatment being symptom based. Eileen Xu’s research focuses on young people and depression, but with a very important intersectional lens which is new to the research field. Xu’s goal is simply to make the world a better place, and she finds it important to address the circumstances young people live in as this affects their mental health. This can be seen through intersections between ethnic groups and poverty but there are fewer datasets around underrepresented groups for researchers to work with.

Interestingly, Casey and Edmonson-Stait’s experiences as PhD students and researchers uncovered that there was recent discussion around mental health in their labs, and a student group was organized to understand how the workplace affects their mental health. It can be seen as assumed that researchers of mental health will have ‘good’ mental health, but they dispel this preconception. They expressed desires for there to be a formalised network for students instead of informal welfare support.

Hopefully this shows students that there are incredible researchers doing the work and prioritising important scopes for students’ mental health, specifically, intersectionality and extenuating circumstances. Though there is a long way to go and extra steps that can make these goals manifest into reality, it is important to acknowledge the effort put by current researchers to the scholarship.

File:Old College, University of Edinburgh (24923171570).jpg” by LWYang from USA is licensed under CC BY 2.0.