MQ is pleased to announce that Dr Alexandra Burton from University College London has been awarded an MQ Fellowship. Alexandra is studying the impact of social prescribing on people who have severe mental illnesses. In particular she wants to understand why social prescribing is effective and how we can improve access to it for vulnerable people.
Please give a brief summary of your academic career to date:
I have a masters in Mental Health Services Research from Kings College London and studied part time for my PhD in applied mental health research whilst working as a research programme manager at University College London. My PhD was based on a clinical trial of a primary care health programme to reduce cholesterol in people living with severe mental illnesses and explored how social support could be used within the health programme to improve cardiovascular health. I then managed a programme of work exploring behavioural, social, and psychological support strategies to help people living with dementia live independently at home before moving to the Social Biobehavioural Research Group as a Senior Research Fellow in April 2020 at the start of the pandemic. All of my planned research projects were put on hold (as they involved in-person programmes and activities!) but I had the fantastic opportunity to lead the qualitative part of the COVID-19 social study involving over 400 interviews on how the pandemic affected people’s mental health and wellbeing. Things have now settled, and I work on a range of trials exploring the impact of arts, social and community programmes. My main focus is understanding how and why these programmes support people.
How long have you been at your current university/institution?
I started working at University College London in the Division of Psychiatry in 2011 and moved to my current department in April 2020.
What is your area of study?
I am a mixed-methods researcher with a strong focus on intervention studies and qualitative research that explores the impact of social, cultural and community programmes on our health. I am really interested in understanding how and why these programmes impact us, as well as identifying and exploring challenges to engagement in these programmes so that we can increase accessibility. My particular focus is on increasing access among populations with severe mental health problems to help support both their physical and mental health.
What motivated you to study this area? Do you have a personal connection to the subject?
I’m really interested in understanding the social aspects of health from a holistic perspective; how feeling lonely or socially isolated can lead to poorer mental health and increase our risk of dying from conditions such as cardiovascular disease, and how positive social connections can help us to flourish and recover from ill health.
The pandemic really brought home the importance of finding ways to connect and the power of the arts, culture, hobbies, leisure and community to bring us together and support our health.
What are you hoping to discover or achieve as a result of your research?
In the short-term, I want to better understand how to increase access to social prescribing and community assets for people with SMI, this might involve tackling stigma and supporting link workers and community organisations to more confidently work with people who are often overlooked for this type of support. Longer term, being able to engage in these types of activities will help people with SMI improve their physical and mental health through a variety of different processes including increased social connectedness, increased confidence through learning new skills and increased physical activity. Understanding what those processes are will help guide the development of new programmes to support people even further.
How do you feel about getting the Fellows award from MQ?
I’ve been aware of MQ since it began in 2013 and its focus on mental health data science. I was so excited to find out that their remit also includes funding applied mental health research and I feel privileged to be doing this project with their backing.
How important is investment in research for the progression of our understanding of Mental health conditions and treatments?
Mental health funding has always fallen behind research funding for other significant health problems, even though so many of us will experience a mental health problem in our lifetime. The impact this has on individuals, their families, communities and society as a whole is huge. It is therefore vital that organisations like MQ exist with a sole priority to invest in mental health research to ensure that people can access innovative and evidence-based treatments, services and support.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
Just a huge thank you to MQ and their supporters for keeping mental health research on the agenda and supporting early career researchers in the field. If anyone is interested in discussing research on social prescribing, loneliness, social isolation, and its impact on people living with severe mental illnesses please do get in touch.
Alexandra’s research is co-funded by the Rosetrees trust and the Stephen Palmer Fellowship fund. You can read more about her research here.