Professor Lina Gega: Institute of Mental Health Research

For Mental Health Awareness Week Alumni Voices spoke to Lina Gega, Professor of Mental Health and Director of our newly established Institute of Mental Health Research at York. From prevention to care, our efforts extend across disciplines, embracing academic expertise, professional insights, and the invaluable perspectives of individuals with lived experiences. Join us as we delve into the ethos, initiatives, and future aspirations of this transformative endeavour.

“Our mission at the Institute of Mental Health Research at York is to improve the lives and care of anyone who experiences mental health problems, but also to help prevent problems arising in the first place and to promote greater mental wellbeing across society. 

Think of it as three concentric circles: caring for those with the greatest need is at the core of our work, but with mental illness prevention and mental health promotion surrounding this. 

We’re lucky enough at York to have researchers working in mental health across nearly every department of our three faculties of social sciences, sciences and arts and humanities. It’s important to get people to work together across disciplinary boundaries because the biggest challenges in  mental health can only really be tackled by bringing together a range of expertise.

But it’s not just academic expertise that we need, we also need the insights of professionals (whether they are clinicians, health or social care workers, teachers, members of the police and legal profession) and, not least, the insights of people with lived experience and those who care for them.

This is where a university-wide research institute, like the Institute of Mental Health, comes in: it gives opportunities and resources to bring people together. It’s also worth noting that our geographical focus is not limited to the UK but extends to many parts of the globe including continental Europe, South East Asia, Africa and South America.

The numbers say it all – in a recent report by the Mental Health Foundation it is estimated that poor mental health currently costs the UK £118 billion per year – this is 5% of our GDP and nearly as high as England’s NHS yearly budget of £150 billion. So we need mental health research for many reasons: to understand further what causes and maintains mental health problems, to develop and evaluate effective interventions for those who already experience poor mental health but also to design community-level programmes to tackle risk factors that can lead to poor mental health. 

Student mental health has always been our priority. There is a fine balance between meeting our duty of care to our students but also not compromising their autonomy, privacy and confidentiality. For example, it’s controversial whether we should ask students to declare mental health problems when they arrive at the university then, if we notice that some students are at risk, whether we should contact their parents without their consent. Doing the right thing for our students is something that we constantly think about, and perhaps there’s not a right and wrong answer. We are guided by the principles that we do no harm but also that we do the greatest good we can for our students.

The University of York is ahead of the curve because it has embedded within departments but also across the university, a very large team of people who proactively support students when they feel vulnerable. Our academics and student support colleagues also engage with our students proactively to pick up any early difficulties and offer timely support. 

York has a long tradition of mental health care and research – a lot of it is captured in our Borthwick Archives showing that York was one of the first cities historically to implement psychological therapies and compassionate psychiatric care at ‘The Retreat’. 

Looking to future challenges, protecting mental health is a major strategic goal  for the government nationally but also the European Commission and the WHO amid dramatic economic, societal and environmental challenges. These challenges have been catalysed by recent events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the wars across the world, resulting in population displacement, an energy crisis and an economic downturn; all this added to climate change, an ageing population, and rapid digitalisation.

York is in a unique position as more than 30 departments and schools at the University carry out research, teaching, practice and enterprise relevant to mental health. The Institute of Mental Health Research is a mechanism to bring together resources and assets across the University and help researchers reach outside their individual research teams to connect not just with other academics at York and beyond, but also with our growing community of practitioners and people with lived experiences, so that we can collectively understand, protect and improve mental health. 

The new Institute of Mental Health Research at York serves our mission for Public Good by improving the lives and care of anyone affected by mental health problems. We do this through interdisciplinary research. What starts with a research project ends with pathways to impact so that any evidence, insights and methods we generate through our research can inform our teaching and learning resources about mental health, advance professional practice and services for mental health across different settings – the NHS, social care, education, the criminal justice system and the workplace and influence communities – both in the physical and digital space – so that they are protective of mental health rather than detrimental to it.

The Institute is a platform through which the University can operationalise its strategy for public good. What we mean by  ‘public good’ is to understand, protect and improve mental health for everyone but especially for students, staff, service users, families and communities who experience mental health difficulties either first hand or as carers and friends. 

Rather than waiting until the results of  our research have been published, the Institute involves stakeholders, wherever possible and appropriate, right from the start in all stages of the research so our findings and knowledge are more likely to find their way into practice quickly and have a significant positive impact outside academia.

One of the biggest problems in our current healthcare system is accessing timely care – for example it’s difficult to get a GP appointment or to discuss more than one problem in a single appointment which immediately disadvantages people with both mental and physical health problems. The Institute of Mental Health Research through its work can raise awareness about these barriers and work with our partners in health services to propose evidence-based solutions to overcome them. 

Mental Health has traditionally been the most underfunded area of health research; however, the National Institute for Health Research – or NIHR – that has been our largest public funder at the University of York, has enabled us to deliver not just discreet individual projects but large national programmes of work over many years that focus on effective interventions that can be embedded within services to inform policy and clinical guidelines, and to educate and upskill professionals, and individuals and families who live with mental health problems.

The Mentally Fit York fund is a brilliant way to support ‘on the ground’ projects within and beyond the University of York with the aim of protecting and improving mental health for all, but particularly for those who need it the most and for those who are underserved like minority and marginalised groups. The Mentally Fit York fund is also important because it supports initiatives for student mental health and it involves people in local communities and health services. The Mentally Fit York fund has been invaluable in helping Mental Health research at the University of York – alongside many other internal sources of funding that pump prime innovative new projects or accelerate the impact of our mental health research.” 

Help support the Mentally Fit York fund by taking part in the Great York Walk on 18 May 2024.  You can read more about the Mentally Fit York fund on the Mentally Fit York fund page. 

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1 Comment

  1. There is no help on the ground…mental health = neglect in the community. Just hot air discussion and no action.

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