New unit to inform mental health policy

Ella Rhodes reports.

In striving to bridge the gap between evidence and policy, UCL and King’s College London are leading the establishment of the new NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit. Commissioned by the Department of Health, the unit will bring mental health researchers, clinicians, service users and carers closer together in working to inform policy. 

Hosted at UCL, the unit will be jointly led by UCL and King’s, alongside researchers from City, University of London and Middlesex University, and including third sector partner the Centre for Mental Health. It has been funded at a cost of £5 million for five years. Director of the unit Professor Sonia Johnson said across the healthcare system what we know about what works is more than what is actually used to inform policy making, as policy makers often don’t have the latest research readily available. ‘We are putting together a responsive core team, and building up a broader network of experts who will ensure that policy makers will have access to the most comprehensive and up-to-date evidence to guide their plans. Our network of experts includes economists, big data analysts and service-user researchers, to name a few, so we will be well placed to look at mental health policy research from many different angles.’

The research unit will be focusing on prevention, access and quality of mental health care, by conducting research on the impact of existing policies and to guide future plans, as well as by providing expert advice in a timely manner. The unit will offer bespoke analyses to help guide mental health policy, drawing on existing data sets to rapidly collect evidence, and by synthesising established findings. The unit will also work with a broader network of experts in the field, and identify researchers who can be available at short notice to offer advice or to take on short-term projects.

Professor of Evidence Based Practice and Research at UCL Miranda Wolpert will be working on the new unit, bringing her expertise on child and youth mental health. ‘Across the country, a network of Policy Research Units already exist to provide the Department of Health with relevant evidence in fields such as children and young people and women’s health. However, this is the first such unit in the field of mental health and marks a significant step in the right direction as it will bring mental health researchers, clinicians, service users and carers closer together. It will provide research to inform policy makers and provide service users and carers a channel through which to ensure their views are heard and considered in the development of key mental health policy.’ 

People who have used mental health services, some of whom are professional researchers, will be part of the team and will contribute their perspectives on equal terms. The unit’s research priorities will be set by the Department of Health and affiliated bodies, and the research team will be collaborating with all stakeholder groups to determine how to address them. A Service-user and Carer Involvement Coordinator is set to be recruited as well as a Lived Experience Advisory Panel (LEAP) consisting of 12 service users and carers. The aim of the LEAP will be to contribute to each substantial piece of work carried out by the unit – especially that which involves investigating service models or stakeholder experiences and views. The team will be using the National Survivor User Network and others to develop links with service-user and carer groups across the country, to enable it to conduct broader consultations rapidly if required, or to reach specific service-user populations. Service-user and carer involvement in the PRU will be led by Professor Sarah Carr. 

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