Blogs 22.11.2022

Building mental health research capacity

Introducing our Mental Health Research Capacity Lead Dr Adam Coutts, who explains his work to build research capability to address the mental health challenges facing communities in this region.

Dr Adam Coutts headshot with motifs

I am originally a human geographer turned social epidemiologist and public policy academic, currently working in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge. I joined the NIHR ARC East of England to help build mental health research infrastructure - one of the two major strands of ARC EoE’s mental health theme.

My personal academic research focuses on how public policies like back-to-work and job seeker schemes affect people’s mental health and help to tackle health disadvantages, ultimately reducing health inequalities. I work directly with policy makers and the people who benefit from their policies.

On a research secondment with the Work and Health Unit at the Department for Work and Pensions, I helped to design, implement and evaluate a large social policy study of how to help people back into work and reduce mental health issues resulting from unemployment.

This three-year project was funded by the Health Foundation and working with the department and job centres offered a ringside seat to understand how people’s health is affected by a back-to-work policy intervention: GroupWork - JOBSII.
A key part of the study adopted an ethnographic approach to examine the active elements and mechanisms responsible for mental health and behaviour changes.
In many randomised controlled trials these are often overlooked.

The research found that good quality back-to-work programmes should focus on personal development (self-efficacy), and the psychological resources to cope with stresses of unemployment. These programmes can emulate the key mental health benefits of having a job such as social support, helping to reduce social isolation, providing time structure and a sense of routine. As previous evidence shows, these programmes can inoculate people against the mental health effects of unemployment as well as help them into work.

Working with the mental health theme

My ARC EoE role supports the theme lead Professor Kristy Sanderson. It involves managing stakeholders, projects, and reporting on progress across our mental health research theme projects. We aim to improve the mental health and wellbeing of people across the region, particularly around the region’s underserved coastal areas, through research and collaboration with policymakers, local communities, mental health services and people with lived experience.

A major part of the role is strategic and focuses on how we can collaborate locally to help reduce the treatment gap that currently exists within mental health services, and ultimately reduce mortality from mental health issues. This involves building relationships with regional and national policy teams, communities and the public, and maintaining good engagement with them. We are identifying opportunities to work in partnership and planning how our research and networks can make an impact to tackle mental health challenges in areas that have been left behind. These places now face even greater social and economic challenges which will affect support services and the mental health of communities.

Through the current ARC EoE mental health infrastructure programme we aim to build the capacity and capabilities of academic researchers but also support policy partners and local organisations working with mental health services. We collaborate with policymakers, researchers, and health and care staff delivering services to identify and evaluate interventions which can help to address the mental health challenges faced by many in society. We also explore how capacity building schemes can be successfully implemented and how the research translates to support decision making and improve people’s lives.

    "For capacity building to have a significant impact, we need to actively work with local communities and across sectors to understand how research can make a difference for individuals and at policy level. ARC EoE researchers from our four partner universities of Cambridge, East Anglia, Essex and Hertfordshire bring considerable knowledge, networks and skills to deliver this for the region."

    Dr Adam Coutts, Mental Health Research Capacity Lead

    In November 2021, ARC EoE was awarded £745,863 to strengthen applied mental health research infrastructure over three years. This is funding senior and early career level academics across each of our four partner universities; two co-funded PhD students; four mental health research summer internships; and twelve mental health fellows.

    Our Mental Health Fellowship programme with the Eastern Academic Health Science Network launched in late 2021, and now joins ARC EoE’s flagship fellowship programme every year. It is suitable for anyone working in mental health, education or voluntary settings who wants to develop an understanding of the research environment, and gain skills in research methodology, service redesign and change management. Fellows are supervised to run local applied mental health research and implementation projects over 18 months, supported by bespoke educational seminars and mentoring.

    We currently have four mental health fellows working with our theme, and Kristy and I would be delighted to discuss potential projects with anyone considering applying for one of the mental health fellowships in 2023. It’s a great opportunity to work on a mental health project that you have not yet had time to focus on, so please get in touch!

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