The UK is home to some of the best mental health data in the world, and there is enormous potential to use this data to accelerate progress in care and address the longstanding disadvantages faced by people with mental health conditions.

But this progress can only be made if we have researchers who can combine specialist skills in large-scale data analysis with mental health. Crucially, these researchers need to be given support to establish careers in this field if they are to deliver the long-term benefits that people affected by mental health conditions deserve.

In 2018, HDR UK and UKRI funded 46 Fellows in health data research to pursue their research goals, and make the important transition to becoming independent researchers.

The cohort covered a wide breadth of data science expertise and areas of health. Now, as part of our focus on mental health, we catch up with two of the HDR UK-UKRI Fellows who have used the programme as an opportunity to build their careers in mental health data science, and are already making real patient impact in these areas.

Rona Strawbridge

University of Glasgow

“My research is focused on trying to understand why people with serious mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, have much higher rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease than the general population.

“For a long time, lifestyle factors have been thought to account for these physical conditions in people with mental health issues – like diet, levels of physical activity, and smoking.

“But actually, recent studies show genetic factors are likely to contribute a great deal to these conditions and that the same biological mechanisms might be contributing to both mental and physical health conditions.

“Before my Fellowship, I was already working in genetics and mental health. But when I saw the HDR UK-UKRI fellowship, I saw it as a chance to combine this with my previous expertise in obesity, diabetes and heart disease and do something really important that people haven’t been doing enough on so far.

“During the Fellowship, I focused on using large datasets like UK Biobank to try to figure out which genetic risk markers are common between both physical and mental conditions and which mechanisms might connect them. This may lead us to being able to use existing treatment for things like heart disease and diabetes to help people with severe mental health conditions.

“UK Biobank is amazing, because it’s the first time we’ve had a big enough dataset to look at people with both physical and mental health conditions – as often people with mental illnesses have been excluded from studies looking just at physical conditions.

“I’ve also been training the next generation of scientists. I’ve supported students in carrying out analyses on the possible mechanisms behind genes that are implicated in both mental and physical illnesses – which may help pave the way to future treatments.

“Most of those student projects have been published, so teaching them not only important science and the scientific theory, but also the process of publishing scientific findings has been really important. Hopefully, it’s helping to promote this important area of research.”

Michael Fleming

University of Glasgow

“I was a statistician working for the NHS for about 10 years before coming back into academia. I really enjoyed this work, helping researchers get the data they needed to answer public health questions. But I found I wanted to become more involved in answering research questions myself – that was the interesting bit to me.

“I knew I needed a PhD to do this, and luckily an opportunity came up to carry out a PhD in childhood health outcomes, which has always been an interest of mine.

“I was looking at five chronic conditions – including physical conditions like asthma and diabetes, and mental conditions like ADHD and depression – and the impact of these on children’s long-term outcomes. And in 2018, I applied to the HDR UK-UKRI Fellowship to continue this research.

“What was shocking was that there were very poor educational and health outcomes across the board for children with mental health conditions.

“For example, even though the children I looked at with ADHD had been diagnosed and were known to the healthcare system, they were far more likely to be excluded from school than other children, which contributes to other long-term impacts on their education and life. It suggests we need to do more to address the needs of these children in schools.

“This work has also led to research to try to identify ways to help diagnose children with mental health conditions earlier, based on educational and behavioural markers in school. I hope measures like these will start to reduce how these children are negatively affected in the long-term by their mental health conditions.

“It’s been brilliant to see this area of research grow in the years I’ve been working in this field. There’s always more we can do with the data – whether that’s by tapping into prescriptions data to monitor certain health conditions, or by linking health and administrative data sets to develop a deeper picture of health care inequalities.

“I’m looking forward to continuing to be a part of this progress. Since my Fellowship, I’ve taken up a lectureship position at the University of Glasgow, helping to teach students about this important area of work. I never would have been able to do this without the opportunity to develop my research ideas and publish papers as part of my Fellowship.”