The University of Birmingham recently launched its Institute for Mental Health (IMH); a cross-College institute which comprises researchers from a variety of disciplines and representing different research backgrounds. The Institute was established to improve the care and outcomes of those with poor mental health, and to transform the way services and public policy view and treat mental health. It will build on the strong existing partnerships with practice in the NHS.

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Approximately 75% of lifelong mental health disorders begin before the age of 24. With mental health disorders in young people and adolescents increasing, the focus of the Institute will be to improve the care of young people with mental health problems and to improve the services available to them.

The Director of the new Institute is Professor Matthew Broome, who has a particular research interest in the development of early intervention in mental health disorders. This will underpin the focus of the Institute and provide treatment for young people from an earlier age, which may prevent life-long conditions from developing as well as improving prognosis.

Matthew’s research into the onset of mental disorders focuses particularly on schizophrenia, psychotic disorders, and mood instability. With approximately three quarters of problems manifesting before the mid-20s, it is crucial that we understand how these disorders develop in young people. This knowledge will allow the team to inform the development of services for those with mental ill health, and help to indicate how early these services should be provided, as well as suggest new avenues for treatment. Research has demonstrated that early intervention in the course of a mental health disorder can prevent the illness from developing altogether or improve prognosis.

The prevalence of mental ill health in young people requires a multidisciplinary approach, drawing expertise from across a range of research areas to tackle the problem. This is characteristic of the IMH, which brings together professionals and researchers from a range of fields, including clinical psychiatry, neuroscience, philosophy and ethics, and social policy.

Professor Paul Burstow

Professor Paul Burstow

“We need to change the way the system works, to invest in a smart way to address the causes of mental illness, not just treating it.”

Professor Paul Burstow is leading the University’s policy commission, which focuses on promoting good mental health throughout society and across people’s lives. This is a national Commission with implications for the West Midlands, in particular the commission is exploring how to close the gap in care for young people and reducing the stigma associated with mental ill health. By understanding this treatment gap and building the evidence base for early action and prevention, Paul and his team are aiming to develop solutions to reduce the number of people experiencing mental distress. Working with the IMH, they hope to shift the focus from just treating ill mental health and its consequences to tackling the causes of ill health in the first place.

Project PERFECT, led by Professor Lisa Bortolotti to explore the Pragmatic and Epistemic Role of Factually Erroneous Cognitions and Thoughts, aims to undermine the theoretical foundations of the stigma commonly associated with mental health issues. This is achieved in the following ways: (1) by showing that there is comtinuity between breaks in rationality across clinical and non-clinical populations; (2) by acknowledging that some behaviour that is symptomatic of mental health issues can also have unexpected benefits, either for people’s psychological wellbeing or for their capacity to interact with the world surrounding them; and (3) by studying the implicit bias and stereotyping that negatively affect people with mental health issues and in particular young people and devising interventions to reduce the negative effects of these practices, in collaboration with mental health organisations such as Mind and the Mental Health Foundation.

Dr Rachel Upthegrove investigates early intervention into what are often still considered ‘severe’ mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, and questions how we define ‘mental illness’, how early is ‘early’ when it comes to intervention, and what these interventions should be. With depression considered one of the most prevalent mental health disorders in society today, Rachel focuses on its role in the development of psychosis. Research has shown that whereas in the past much of the focus within psychosis has been on symptoms such as hallucinations, the development of depression is one of the most significant symptoms requiring intervention, and one of the most significant initial indicators of poor outcomes, including self-harm and suicide.

Collaboration locally, regionally and internationally is important to identify new and better treatments for the IMH to explore. Currently working with partners in the EU on a project called PRONIA, Rachel and other IMH researchers are using data from nearly 2,000 young people with first-time mental health problems to see if we can accurately make predictions for them. This promises to bring greater understanding of the complexity of symptoms, including which can predict outcomes.

As a society we are increasingly aware of young people suffering from mental health problems. But there is a gap between awareness of illness and knowledge of effective interventions. The work of the IMH will address this anomaly by matching effective and tailored interventions to specific symptoms in young people, early enough to make a difference.


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