Social science research can address the challenges mental health poses for our society

Louise Arseneault 150px.jpgLouise Arseneault, Professor of Developmental Psychology at King’s College London, was appointed to the new role of ESRC Mental Health Leadership Fellow in autumn 2016.

Throughout the three year fellowship, Professor Arseneault will play a vital role in championing the role of the social sciences within mental health research.

This is an exciting time for people involved in mental health research. There hasn’t been such interest around the importance and relevance of mental health in society for a long time. And this is especially exciting for me as the ESRC Mental Health Leadership Fellow.

My role consists of providing intellectual leadership and strategic advice on how social science research can address the challenges that mental health poses for our society, communities and individuals. But my role is not limited to providing advice on funding mental health research. I work with clinicians, charities and people in government to tackle the stigma attached to mental health problems.

Only five years ago, an appointment like this one would have been far more challenging. But now there is recognition that mental illness is common and part of everyday life, and there is a willingness to tackle its negative impact on people’s lives.

Another important part of my role is to increase the scientific community’s awareness of mental health in planning their research. I see an opportunity to embrace a ‘genes and biology’ approach to mental health and go beyond this to emphasise the social and environmental aspects. In addition, it would be great to see more projects in the economic and social sciences include mental health in their thinking. Also, research councils devoted to physical science and engineering could help develop better tools to assess mental wellness and illness, or new technology to assist people who suffer from mental health illnesses.

I would like us to step out of our comfort zones and work with other disciplines and other funders to create new interdisciplinary projects on mental health. The cross-disciplinary mental health research agenda recently published by the Research Councils should help to encourage this collaborative approach, and as a result strengthen the mental health research field.

One of the two issues I grew to find especially interesting since I started this post is the importance of transitions in life, for example the transition from primary to secondary school, or the transition from studying to working. These important periods can certainly be stressful, and are also a point at which mental health problems can emerge, reappear or stop. It is important to study and intervene on mental health problems at these key moments in life.

The second issue I have become interested in is the growing awareness of population ageing, and concern over its sweeping social and economic impact. It is important to consider mental health when we think about the years of health and wealth that we want older people to enjoy. Longitudinal studies are a very powerful tool for observing and understanding mental health and mental illness across the lifespan, and research here could lead to significant advances in understanding the ageing process.

I will also be investigating the impact of social relationships in a contemporary Britain on mental health and wellbeing. How we engage in social relationships has changed dramatically over the past few decades. The way that social relationships start and develop has been transformed due to our increased use of the internet and social media. Technology has had a profound impact on the way we interact socially, and the implications have yet to be fully understood.

playground bullying.jpgAlso, loneliness has become a growing concern, and especially in light of the fact that we live longer than ever before. But loneliness doesn’t affect just elderly: the proportion of people in the UK who often feel lonely, worry about feeling lonely, and seek help for loneliness, is highest among people aged between 18 and 34 years.

Finally, our understanding of the negative consequences of being bullied in childhood is now sharper and has forced us to reconsider this social experience as an important risk factor influencing mental health. However, we still don’t know the full impact on the overall costs for society. My project will take a life-course approach to examine the impact of cyber harassment, loneliness and bullying victimisation, and it will cover mental health from childhood up to midlife.

In the three years of my appointment, I endeavour to listen to people’s concerns and ideas about mental health and to learn what researchers, policymakers and mental health professionals are doing to address those concerns. This is an extremely stimulating opportunity to meet people and try to influence mental health research in the UK.


Learn more about ESRC’s commitment to mental health research on the ESRC website.

You can follow @L_Arseneault on Twitter

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