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This profile is tailored towards students studying biological sciences, economics, health sciences, psychology, and sociology, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.
Why is this a pressing problem?
Mental illness causes immense suffering around the world, affecting an estimated 10% of the global population. This report by the Happiness Research Institute shows that depression and anxiety, the most common mental illnesses, are associated with reductions in self-reported life satisfaction greater on average than the reductions associated with stroke, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and lung disease. The decrease in psychological wellbeing caused by mental illness is often compounded by costs to economic, social and physical wellbeing – for example, mental illness increases the likelihood of an individual experiencing unemployment, social stigma and chronic physical ill health. In some countries, people who are mentally ill are likely to suffer severe human rights abuses – for example being chained or incarcerated – rather than receiving treatment.
Most people with mental illnesses don’t receive treatment, which is a particularly serious issue in LICs, where government expenditure on mental health amounted to just US$0.02 per person in 2017. Therefore, research to identify the most effective existing treatments in these settings seems like a priority. At the same time, the best current treatments would not be enough to cause the burden of mental illness to disappear, even if all sufferers were able to access them. As mental health research is also relatively neglected – the level of research funding is disproportionate to the burden of poor mental health in every country – it seems like further research would be valuable to develop new and more effective treatments.
This report from the Happier Lives Institute, on which the suggestions for further research in this profile are based, suggests ‘identifying the causes of mental illness and advancing the scale-up of existing interventions, as well as developing new treatments’ as promising directions for further research.
See the talk below for an exploration of some of the best ways we currently know of to improve wellbeing.
Explore existing research
- Bickman, Leonard (2020) Improving Mental Health Services: A 50-Year Journey from Randomized Experiments to Artificial Intelligence and Precision Mental Health, Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research
- Donaldson, Clare, et al. (2021) Using Subjective Wellbeing to Estimate the Moral Weights of Averting Deaths and Reducing Poverty
- McGuire, Joel & Michael Plant (2021) Psychotherapy: Cost Effectiveness Analysis, Happier Lives Institute
- World Mental Health Report: Transforming Mental Health for All (2022), World Health Organisation
Take a look at this reading list from the Happier Lives Institute to find further reading.
- The Happiness Research Institute is a think tank exploring why some societies are happier than others, with the aim of informing decision-makers and making subjective well-being part of the public policy debate.
- The Happier Lives Institute uses subjective wellbeing data to identify problems and find evidence-based ways to solve them.
- The Mental Health Innovation Network is a community of mental health researchers, practitioners, policy-makers, service user advocates, and donors from around the world sharing innovative resources and ideas to promote mental health and improve the lives of people with mental, neurological and substance use disorders.
- The mental health team at Wellcome (one of the world’s biggest philanthropic foundations) funds a variety of research on mental health.
Find a thesis topic
If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!
Research into the causes of mental illness, for example by identifying the specific genes involved in risk and their mechanisms of action, could contribute to prioritising preventative mental health interventions.
The value of different research topics likely differs by orders of magnitude. It could therefore be very valuable to prioritise mental health research topics and strategies (from basic science on genetic correlates of mental illness to improving the way current interventions are delivered).
The Happier Lives Institute writes, ‘Although groups of researchers, advocates, and other stakeholders have proposed lists of major tasks in mental health research, these lists do not compare the items, and they omit some promising options. Even a “back-of-the-envelope” analysis of the best (and worst!) research opportunities would be of use, and though it may not influence established investigators to change course, it could be a substantial benefit to those planning research careers and those selecting funding opportunities as well as a guide to the field moving forward.’
See their full report for more information.
The value of different research topics likely differs by orders of magnitude. It could therefore be very valuable to prioritise mental health research topics and strategies (ranging for example from basic science on the genetic correlates of mental illness to improving the way current interventions are delivered).
The Happier Lives Institute writes, ‘Although groups of researchers, advocates, and other stakeholders have proposed lists of major tasks in mental health research, these lists do not compare the items, and they omit some promising options. Even a “back-of-the-envelope” analysis of the best (and worst!) research opportunities would be of use, and though it may not influence established investigators to change course, it could be a substantial benefit to those planning research careers and those selecting funding opportunities as well as a guide to the field moving forward.’ See their full report for more information.
It would also be valuable to increase the evidence-base for the cost-effectiveness of different mental health treatments in low-income settings, measuring the impact of interventions in terms of subjective wellbeing.
The effect sizes for many existing mental health treatments are relatively small. Work to make current mental health treatments more powerful, test the efficacy of new treatments that have high potential for impact, and develop new treatment paradigms could therefore be valuable.
It could also be useful to explore treatments which are less commonly used and try to develop them further. Possibilities for further exploration include non-invasive brain stimulation, stellate ganglion block injections for PTSD and immunoregulatory nasal sprays. Another possibility is research on how the effects of psychotherapy can be enhanced, for example via psychedelic-assisted treatment or precision mental health.
Further research into the possible genetic and environmental causes of mental illness and how mental illness can be prevented from developing could also be valuable.
Finally, it would be valuable to increase the evidence-base for the cost-effectiveness of different mental health treatments in low-income settings, measuring the impact of interventions in terms of subjective wellbeing.
Further research aimed at expanding access to preventative interventions for mental health would be valuable. You could, for example, investigate the regions in which it would be most feasible to introduce or strengthen various interventions which have been shown to reduce mental illness, such as raising taxes on alcohol, as well as exploring how to increase buy-in from the public and policymakers.
It could also be useful to research stigma around mental health and effective ways to reduce it. See here for more information on the role of stigma in the treatment gap for mental illnesses.
Apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas. You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in meeting other students working on this research direction.
Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor.
Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.
This list of courses may be helpful if you’re looking for a PhD program. This MSc Global Mental Health is particularly recommended.
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- The Global Mental Health Unboxed newsletter is a useful source of events, vacancies, courses and new research.
You might also be interested in our research direction profiles on improving health and wellbeing metrics, global health and wellbeing and reducing physical pain.
This profile was last significantly updated 26/08/2022. Thanks to Barry Grimes for feedback on this profile. All mistakes remain our own.