Dr Jen Dykxhoorn, Senior Research Fellow at UCL talks to us about her role in the SPHR Public mental health programme.
What are your main research/involvement interests?
I am a psychiatric epidemiologist and public mental health researcher. My research focuses on understanding the social and environmental factors that impact mental illnesses.
I am particularly interested in understanding how contextual factors shape the mental health of historically marginalised and socially excluded populations. I use quantitative methods and “big data” to explore questions of health inequality, with the broad goal of providing evidence needed to address the disproportionate burden of poor mental health in vulnerable population groups.
Can you tell me about your work in the School?
I am the programme manager, researcher, and co-investigator for the Public Mental Health Programme. I had a lead role in developing the conceptual framework and I provide support to research projects across the programme. I work closely with the team of peer researchers to ensure lived experience perspectives are embedded across all research in the programme. I also supervise research students, pre-doctoral, and post-doctoral research fellows, who are conducting fantastic research within the School.
In the second phase of the programme, I am a co-investigator on a “big data” research project, where we are using large datasets, like electronic health records and population surveys to explore rates of common mental disorders and the impact that policy changes may have on mental health.
What impact has this research had?
I am delighted to share the Conceptual Framework for Public Mental Health. The conceptual framework is an exciting research output which summarises the broad factors which impact public mental health. This interactive tool is unique as it brings together academic research, practitioner experience, and public perspectives into an engaging tool that highlights the multiple factors that influence public mental health. It is the culmination of over two years of work by our team, including academic reviews, in-person and online consultations, and conversations with stakeholders. This project has demonstrated the value of embedding public involvement into all stages of the research process. Working with peer researchers has strengthened the research by identifying key determinants which have not been measured in academic research.
I am particularly excited about this tool as it has the potential to raise awareness about the broad factors which influence mental health, and how they are interconnected using an engaging format. The interactivity is a real strength of this tool, as you are able to explore the tool in many different ways – from getting a broad view of the determents of mental health, to reading about the research and specific interventions. There are several ways this tool may be used:
- The tool can be used to increase awareness about the broad factors which impact mental health. For example, the tool could be used in schools to discuss how mental health is impacted by many different factors.
- The conceptual framework, with links to key literature and interventions, could be used by local authority and public health staff to make a case for investment in mental health interventions.
- The lived experience section on each determinant page highlights the real-world impact of these determinants, which helps make these stories visible and provide additional evidence for why addressing broad determinants could improve the mental health for many.
- Finally, public health researchers may use this tool as a starting point to identify where there are gaps in the evidence to guide further research.
In the coming months, it will be interesting to see how people use the tool to support the work that they do.
What made you decide to choose a pathway in public health research?
The three ideas which underlie my decision to pursue a career in mental health research are curiosity, collaboration, and impact.
Curiosity: A driving reason that I embarked on a research career is that I simply never fully grew out of the “why” phase as a child. There are still so much that we do not know about the causes of mental illnesses and what works for preventing poor mental health. I enjoy the challenge of challenging my assumptions, learning new methods, and applying these techniques to tackle questions in public mental health.
Collaboration: In contrast to the pop culture view of research as a solitary job in a dusty library or sterile lab, research is a highly collaborative field. Through this programme and other research projects, I have had the opportunity to work with brilliant researchers who have transformed our understanding of mental health and who continue to lead ground-breaking projects. These conversations and collaborations have challenged my thinking and have invigorated my research.
Impact: Research can be a powerful tool for social change, and public health research has the ability to transform our understanding of the drivers of health, highlight social injustice, and motivate work towards a more equitable future. I know that even small changes at the population level have the potential to make a difference to the lives of thousands of people.
What has been the highlight of your research involvement?
My research highlighting the impact that factors in the social environment have on the rates of mental health problems in migrants has been the research I have been most excited about. I showed that region of origin, age at migration, family networks, and neighbourhood factors all influenced rates of psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder with psychotic features. I am excited to continue this work exploring how context matters for mental health in the work I am doing within the Public Mental Health programme.
On a lighter note, it was a delight to be a co-author on a Christmas BMJ paper that involved watching Disney films. I highly recommend checking out this annual issue filled with quirky, light-hearted, and whimsical research studies.
What advice would you give to someone considering involvement in public health research?
I think the world of public health research is infinitely interesting, and there are many pressing questions that we need to explore to improve the population mental health and reduce inequalities.
Some of the best advice I got when starting out in my research career was to “pay attention to what you pay attention to.” Notice what headlines catch your notice, or what questions spark curiosity. Paying attention to these things may help you find the area of public health research that will continue to keep your attention for years to come.