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It’s time for a wide range of researchers to get involved in mental health research

Published: 26 January 2021

Bea Shelley is coordinator for the NIHR Incubator for Mental Health Research, which supports and advocates for academic research careers in mental health. She writes about her conversations with mental health researchers and how the Incubator aims to help the profession.

A few years ago, I would have considered mental health problems to be an individual’s issue – one that doctors, nurses and psychologists would look after if it got serious. However, the sea change in public attitudes – mine included – that we’ve seen in the past few years, feels like a slow dawning: promoting good mental health and preventing and overcoming mental health problems are not just an individual’s responsibility but the whole of society’s responsibility. The ways forward are likely to be found within and beyond those few clinical disciplines.

What’s exciting for me, as coordinator for the NIHR Incubator for Mental Health Research, is encountering all the different researchers and practitioners who are taking on mental health from all different angles. It is not a narrow field anymore – far from it!

The Incubator aims to inspire and encourage aspiring mental health researchers from a whole range of backgrounds to consider a career in mental health research. It was created by Professor Cathy Creswell and Professor Louise Howard, who identified that there was a real lack of research capacity in mental health. Without examples of people pursuing mental health research careers this wasn’t going to change and so one of my first tasks was to find and share the career stories of all the different sorts of people who are doing mental health research today. Finding stories - I love a challenge like this! 

Collecting career stories

For the past six months I’ve had the privilege of talking to a whole range of researchers and practitioners who work in clinical, public health, and other settings, who are chipping away at our societal-scale health problem. I’ve been on phone calls and Zoom calls with medics, nurses, social workers, psychologists, health economists, behavioural scientists, and allied health professionals of all types to learn about their motivations and journeys into mental health research. They candidly shared their career stories, inspirations and top tips.

It’s been fascinating to hear about what motivates the researchers I spoke to, and some of the struggles they’ve encountered. Many researchers are clearly motivated by making a difference. Although many lament the uncertainty inherent in a research career, they also love the freedom and the prospect of becoming a leader in their field. Overall, I got a sense of strong personal drive from all the researchers I spoke to. This career path has often demanded bravery: if you work in a clinical setting with no other researchers around you, it can be difficult to know where to start.

Career paths in mental health research

There are many more opportunities in mental health research than there used to be, both for those with clinical and non-clinical backgrounds. The NIHR Academy offers a range of career development awards. For those in the early stages of exploring research, senior researchers have shared their advice about getting started on the career development pages of the NIHR Incubator for Mental Health Research website. Simply feeling connected to an open and diverse research community in mental health is a real opportunity too. Establishing, supporting and growing that community is what drives me personally and I’m excited about the potential for change a new generation of all these researchers can bring.
Read the career stories Bea collected on the NIHR Incubator for Mental Health Research website.

Follow the Incubator on Twitter @MHRIncubator.

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