More than ever, research, policy and practice must address the mental health of populations. The Covid-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns have threatened many people’s mental health with bereavement, ill-health, social isolation, difficult or violent domestic relationships, and mounting anxiety relating to uncertain educational and economic futures. The cost-of-living crisis now exacerbates these challenges further – many individuals and families are facing food insecurity, rising debt and fuel poverty. Crucially, the gaps between social groups have widened in the last three years with regard to mental health outcomes. Vulnerable populations – for example those living in poverty and members of minoritised groups – are more likely to experience poor mental health and less likely to access timely support.
Yet the pandemic has also prompted innovation across health and social care, public health, and education. Myriad ways to support mental health have emerged, including the widespread use of virtual spaces, harnessing of community networks and repurposing of community assets. Some of these changes are here to stay. We need to assess how they impact the mental health of whole populations, not only so we can capitalise on their potential to prevent the development of mental health problems, alleviate over-stretched mental health services and reduce mental health inequalities, but also to be sure that these changes are not increasing risks to the most vulnerable subgroups.
The School’s Public Mental Health Programme
Between 2017–2022, the National Institute for Health Research’s School for Public Health Research (SPHR) Public Mental Health Programme delivered high quality research that helped us better understand public mental health at the current time. We studied the forces and factors that influence people’s mental health, asked which outcomes best allow us to assess impact and track progress at the population level, and identified which interventions show the most promise for improving the mental health of the public.
Building on this groundwork and using the School’s PMH conceptual model as a backdrop, we are developing an exciting programme for our next five years of work within SPHR’s Public Mental Health Programme. This new series of projects will identify effective – and cost effective – ways to improve public mental health across the life course.
We will focus on strengthening the settings or systems in which people live and work – communities, schools and the workplace – to maximise the prevention of poor mental health, and support those who are experiencing difficulties.
With academic expertise and leadership from all nine institution members of SPHR, we will work with practice and public partners to deliver research that provides evidence with immediate application across settings. Our projects will consider the whole life course, from young to old, with a specific focus on those groups that are most at risk of poor mental health outcomes and inequalities.
This will be an ambitious package of work, examining scalable, efficient ways to draw on community assets and resources that are supportive of mental health for different age groups.
Areas of research
Our first workstream will look at community assets (spaces, things, resources, services and people) that are supportive of mental health for different age groups. Our case studies will use innovative, participatory, qualitative research methods to assess both the impact on mental health and the social value of digital technologies, informal volunteering, and cross sector collaborations with non-traditional stakeholders. We will work in equal partnership with members of the public and mental health professionals to make sure our research is meaningful, useful, and embedded into everyday practice.
Our second workstream will ask how we can strengthen systems that support groups at greatest risk of poor mental health. Our first project in this workstream will focus on supporting schools and youth organisations to engage in prevention of suicide and self-harm behaviours, particularly in settings that have experienced a recent suicide. This work will lead to the publication of principles of good practice, co-produced with stakeholders with relevant organisations, and with young people themselves. Future projects will focus on best ways to support the mental health of other vulnerable groups or communities.
Our final workstream will focus on the ways in which schools and workplaces promote good or poor mental health. Our first planned project will model the impact of school-based interventions on long term mental health outcomes in adulthood. It is hoped this model can be applied to a number of school-based interventions in the future, to help us understand what will be effective and cost-effective practice.
We will be developing a number of other projects within these three workstreams over the next year, in partnership with public and practice collaborators.
If you would like to follow the development of our programme, hear about our findings or –even better – become involved in some of the work, please contact our team.
Louise Lafortune firstname.lastname@example.org
Judi Kidger email@example.com
You can also join the Public Mental Health Network to stay updated on research findings and opportunities to work together on mental health initiatives.