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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek: Improving our understanding of mental health, resilience and well-being

For Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re taking a closer look at how researchers at Queen Mary University of London are undertaking to better understand mental health and potentially find new ways to treat mental health conditions.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, nature

Mental Health week is 10-16 May for 2021 and the theme is Nature.

Mental illness places a huge burden on individuals, their families and society more widely. Our researchers are working to understand how different social, biological and physical factors contribute to our mental health, resilience and well-being. By uncovering their causes, we can potentially find better ways to diagnose and treat mental health conditions.

You can find out more about how we’re marking this week at Queen Mary on our dedicated Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 webpages.

About our research

Differences in emotion processing in psychopathy and anxiety

Being able to decipher other people’s states from their emotional expressions is a fundamental social skill, and it has been shown conditions such as psychopathy and anxiety are associated with impaired emotion recognition. However, methods to test emotion recognition have to date lacked sensitivity and resolution.

Though an MRC-funded project, Dr Isabelle Mareschal, Reader in Experimental Psychology and Head of the Psychology Department at Queen Mary, along with collaborators at UCL and the University of Bath have developed a novel method to measure emotion recognition, whereby each participant can “create” facial expressions. They have developed a computer graphics software that allows participants to create and refine different facial expressions, meaning that for the first time, we can “see” what a particular facial expression may look like to different people. They are now in the process of examining how psychopathy and anxiety traits can impact on the different types of facial expressions individuals create.

What defines our resilience

We know that people can respond very differently to adversity, with some individuals developing stress-related conditions such as depression whilst others are able to maintain good mental health despite adversity and show psychological resilience.

A recent study from Queen Mary researchers Dr Demelza Smeeth and Professor Michael Pluess has explored how events in our lives could affect the way our genes work and how we respond to adversity. The researchers developed a theoretical model to show how epigenetics- changes to the activity of our genes– can influence how resilient we are. They show that our resilience can be affected by epigenetics at three main stages during our lifetime; certain epigenetic differences are set at birth, these can then change in response to our environment during infancy and childhood, and then protective factors we’re exposed to during times of adversity can also have an impact. This work has helped to explain how aspects of our environment can become biologically embedded and contribute to the development of psychological resilience as well as highlight future areas for further research.

The review paper was published in the Lancet Psychiatry.

The links between psychiatric disorders and smoking on psychosis

Around 5–10 per cent of the population report psychotic experiences such as hallucinations and delusions. These experiences are core symptoms of severe mental health disorders like schizophrenia and could even be an indicator of risk for mental health problems in apparently healthy individuals. Understanding the causes of psychotic experiences could help to identify an individual’s susceptibility for different mental health outcomes and develop tailored prevention and treatment strategies.

Both smoking and genetic risk for psychiatric disorders have been associated with psychotic experiences, but there has been little understanding of the interplay between these factors. In a recent study Professor Caroline Brennan, the late Dr Robert Keers and colleagues investigated the association of smoking with the occurrence of psychotic experiences and whether smoking exacerbated the effects of genetic predisposition for mental health disorders on psychotic experiences. They found that smoking status, maternal smoking, and number of packs smoked/year were associated with psychotic experiences and that the effects of genetic predisposition for depression and ADHD on having delusions was significantly greater in current smokers compared to never smokers. The results suggest that both genetic risk of psychiatric disorders and smoking status may have independent and synergistic effects on specific types of psychotic experiences.

The study was recently published in Nature’s Translational Psychiatry.

Psychology-based interventions for refugee children

More than half a million child refugees have reached Greece by sea since 2014. Children in refugee camps have limited access to school and mental health services and NGOs working with children living in refugee camps in Lesvos have highlighted the urgent need to help these children develop their well-being and resilience.

Together with her co-researchers, Dr Isabelle Mareschal, Dr Kristin Hadfield and Professor Michael Pluess, Dr Sevasti Foka developed "Strengths for the Journey", a positive psychology-based intervention that can be delivered in humanitarian crisis contexts with limited resources. It uses a non-clinical, and preventive approach and promotes resilience and wellbeing among children when faced with adverse and challenging conditions.

The study was published in Development and Psychopathology.

Dr Foka recently spoke more about the project and the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on children’s and adolescent's resilience and wellbeing as part of Queen Mary’s People and Pandemics series.

The role of religious healing in mental health in Greece

Although the positive correlation between religiosity and improved mental health has been well documented in scientific research, this relationship is still a source of controversy in medical circles.

Dr Theodora Dallas, Lecturer in Mental Health at the Centre for Psychiatry has recently looked at the role of religious healing in mental health in Greece. Despite the availability of mainstream mental health treatments, religious healing is still commonplace. Dr Theodora Dallas, Ms Noelle Marina Baroutsa and Professor Simon Dein looked at how specific Greek rituals in which bodily practices and embodied experience facilitate the healing of mental distress.

Through a critical review of the literature, Dr Dallas and colleagues found that these rituals reduce the sense of loss of control over people’s difficult situations and give meaning to people’s lives when healing is anticipated.  The authors noted that commitment, social bonding, and suffering endured by those participating in these rituals may play a significant role in the alleviation of mental distress and that symbolic healing may result in physiological changes. This has implications for future work in this area which should involve not just detailed ethnographic assessments but also biomedical examinations to understand the role of religious cognitions and practices on physiological functioning.

The paper was recently published in Mental Health, Religion & Culture.

More information

  • If you are interested in researching the causes and consequences of mental illnesses, Queen Mary is launching a brand new taught Master’s for 2021, MSc Psychology: Mental Health Sciences, directed by Professor Michael Pluess. Find out more about the programme.
  • For those interested in undergraduate study, there is a BSc Psychology degree programme available, which is accredited by the British Psychological Society.




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