Being a mental health researcher: ‘Seeing the impact you have makes it all worthwhile’

Mental health researchers on a zoom call
Much research has moved online during COVID-19, but that hasn’t stopped Lindsay and her co-researchers

World Mental Health Day is an opportunity to reflect on what needs to change, but also to celebrate the people who are working to make sure positive change happens. Like Dr Lindsay Dewa, IGHI Research Fellow and mental health expert.

We caught up with Lindsay to find out about her mental health research, her path into academia, and why she’s excited about what the future might hold.

What motivated you to become a mental health researcher?

Mental health researcher Lindsay with a book
Lindsay with her thesis

“I’ve always cared about people, from an early age. I always wanted to make sure that others are OK. But I suppose a turning point was taking A-level Psychology. This gave me a way of new thinking around the mind and how we all work, behave, think and feel. I was hooked from then!

“But I think my journey was cemented when I did my PhD. I was looking at sleep and mental health in the prison environment. I could see the direct impact that our research would have on prisoners. And being in IGHI, you can really see that there is a translational aspect to everything we do that’s so key. I see people doing research that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Being in an Institute where we can make a real difference is important to me. And working with young people and seeing the impact you have makes it all worthwhile.”

Is the reality of your work how you expected it to be?

“I think it’s probably better than I thought it would be. Early on I thought that it would be like being a student forever! I loved learning, being in the library just writing away. That really suited me. But I didn’t realise how hands-on research would be. I got involved in qualitative work, mixed methods research and co-production. That meant a lot of face-to-face work.

“During my PhD I spent a lot of time working in prison, doing one-on-one interviews. As I came from more of a statistical, reading and writing background, that shift from the office into the real world surprised me. But my passion definitely lies in working with people.”

Tell us a bit about the projects you’re involved in at IGHI?

“I’m looking at ways to detect deterioration earlier in mental health settings, using technology where possible. Our previous work explored the feasibility and acceptability of using technology this way, and now we’re progressing this into using this approach as an intervention. For example we’re seeing if poor sleep could be an early predictor of deterioration in people transitioning from hospital to the community, so we can intervene earlier.

“This year we also launched a project called CCopeY, which is exploring young people’s mental health and coping strategies during the pandemic. We’re following participants up every month on their mental health, wellbeing and sleep, and seeing if it’s changed over time.

“Another big project we’re about to finish, with Wellcome, looked at whether it’s important to have a quality social connection in digital tools to help prevent and treat depression and anxiety in young people. If it is important, it could have real-world implications, as digital technologies could have this ‘ingredient’ introduced and embedded to make a difference to outcomes. I’m really privileged to be part of this project with my colleagues at IGHI, Emma and Lily.”

What has been your most rewarding research experience so far?

“Probably the qualitative study I did working together with young people with lived experience of mental health difficulties. I could see the transformation in their skills and confidence in a research world that they didn’t have before. It was clear that it’s not just the research that’s being affected, it’s their lives, too, in a positive way.”

A lot of your research has involved co-production, why do you feel that’s important?

A photograph of Lindsay presenting a poster of her research with one of the young people she worked with.
Lindsay and Caroline, one of the young co-researchers presenting their findings

“It’s not only a moral and ethical necessity. It needs to be embedded in research, as it makes such a difference to everyone involved. And it makes sense: people with lived experience know best.

“For people looking to co-produce their work, I’d have three top tips. I’d advise people to set up a communications strategy early on to ensure all voices are heard and decisions are made together. We did this by a WhatsApp group.

“Then I’d use software that’s accessible to all, so it’s not just the researcher driving things forward. That means everyone has a voice and can also move things around.

“Finally, there’s a need for appropriate support and safeguarding. This is so fundamental. That might mean creating a safe environment and having mental health first aiders on board to check in regularly, making sure everyone’s ok, and providing training and support.”

If you could change one thing in the mental health sphere, what would it be?

“I think having mental health fundamentally equal to physical health. It needs to have the same parity across everything we do, from funding, resources, to education in schools. School children need to be learning more and more that it’s OK to talk, open up and share their feelings as early as possible. By doing that, there’s bound to be an effect into adulthood.”

What excites you most about the future for people’s mental health?

“There is a bright future in terms of this shift into the digital world. Even if we use technology as a blended approach in tandem with face to face care, it’s a really exciting possibility. More and more people are using wearables, phones, tablets: can we use this technology to help people? I think we can. We’re using it all the time anyway, so why not use it to detect deterioration, find out how we’re doing, as a tool for support? I feel that’s an exciting possibility.

“If digital technologies have the potential to prevent harm, then I want to be part of it. That’s what I have a passion about, the potential to save lives.”

Dr Lindsay Dewa is a Research Fellow at IGHI’s NIHR Imperial Patient Safety Translational Research Centre.

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