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Natalie Bennett

PhD student

Public mental health programme, Places & communities programme, Health inequalities theme

University of Sheffield

Research Interests

Mental health and well-being, the ethnic density effect, construction of race and ethnicity in health research, Understanding Society (UKHLS), contextual effects, the social determinants of health.

Natalie's PhD reflections

My studentship project focused on how the proportion of people from a minority ethnic background (referred to as ‘ethnic density’) in neighbourhoods might affect the mental health of people from these groups. Existing research suggests that higher ‘ethnic density’ levels are associated with better mental health, which has been termed the ‘ethnic density effect’. However, we have a limited understanding of why people from minority ethnic backgrounds have better health in areas with higher ‘ethnic density’. In my research I aimed to investigate some of the possible reasons behind this association.

The project began with a systematic review of the literature, to survey the current state of knowledge on the ‘ethnic density effect’ and the possible reasons for the beneficial associations observed. Conducting the review as the first stage of my PhD research was a valuable opportunity. Systematic reviews are a core research skill, valued by employers, both within and outside of academia. The review helped me to identify some of the key explanations which had been hypothesised and tested in the existing research. Informed by the results of the systematic review, I then conducted a quantitative analysis to test some of these possible reasons behind the ‘ethnic density effect’. Though I was familiar with some of the initial methods, it became apparent that a more complex analysis would be required. I attended several training courses in these more complex methods, primarily in Structural Equation Modelling (SEM), which was made possible through the training and development fund offered to SPHR studentship holders. A real highlight for me was attending the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) winter methods school in Bamberg, Germany. The training I received was excellent, and the week-long course was made even better by the opportunity to sample local Bavarian culture and cuisine in the evenings. I applied the skills I learnt during the course to analyse data from a large panel survey called Understanding Society. I later attended another, remote ECPR course on an even more advanced application of SEM where I made several international connections, some of whom I am now collaborating with on projects. Through implementing this more advanced application of SEM, I was able to test some of the possible explanations behind the ‘ethnic density effect’ in a more comprehensive manner than had been done so far. I found that racism operated as a mediator, whereby survey respondents were less likely to report experiencing racism in higher ethnic density areas, and that this was associated with better mental health.

I recently had the opportunity to present the results of this research at a conference held by the Understanding Society team. I will also present the final results from my PhD research at the week-long International Medical Geography Symposium at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh later in 2022. This opportunity was also made possible by the training and development fund from SPHR. Towards the end of my studentship period, a careers and networking event was held for all of the SPHR studentship holders in London where we received an excellent day-long workshop from a careers coach. Several days after this event, and with the guidance we received in mind, I interviewed for my first role post-PhD and was successful. The support, training and opportunities I have received throughout my SPHR studentship have been invaluable and prepared me well for a career either within or outside of academia.

Natalie's Q&A

  • What has been your career journey so far?

    I completed my undergraduate degree in Human Geography at the University of Leicester in 2017. Following this, I went on to complete an MSc in Social Epidemiology at University College London. I secured funding for my PhD project during my MSc and moved to Sheffield to commence my PhD studies in 2018.

  • Why did you choose to do a PhD in public health research?

    Completing a PhD in public health allows me to bring together an interest in the role of both the social aspects of life and of place for health which I developed during both my previous degrees.

  • What is your research focused on?

    My research focuses on a phenomenon called the ‘ethnic density effect’ which describes the effect observed whereby as the proportion of individuals from a particular minority ethnic group in an area increases, on average their mental health is better. Specifically, my research aims to find out why this is the case and what mechanisms are involved.

  • Why is it important?

    This is important as minority ethnic groups often suffer from higher rates of mental illness. In addition, understanding the mechanisms which are operating behind the effect may offer an opportunity to enhance these beneficial aspects in areas which are less dense. It is also important in dispelling the negative discourse associated with areas which have higher densities of people from minority ethnic backgrounds.

  • What do you like about being a part of the NIHR School for Public Health Research?

    I have found being a part of NIHR School for Public Health Research very beneficial in terms of opportunities for training and career support. In addition, the annual scientific meeting and ResNet meetings provide great networking opportunities and a chance to share work and get feedback from a variety of colleagues from across the country.

  • What skills have you learnt and/or are hoping to learn as part of your PhD?

    I have developed a number of skills during my PhD, notably the ability to manage a much larger project than I have previously worked on. In addition, I had the opportunity to attend a number of training courses to develop new skills on the programming language R and in the method of Structural Equation Modelling.

  • What do you hope to do after completing your PhD?

    After completing my PhD I hope to work for local government in a public health based role.


Presentation: SSM 2020 Conference.  ‘What pathways have been theorised and tested between ethnic density and mental ill health?: A theory-based systematic review’.

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