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Scholars’ Day 2023

Scholars’ Day is a highlight of the year for Mental Health Research UK. It gives an opportunity for Trustees, Members of the Mental Health Research UK Scientific Committee and our supporters to hear about the research that our Scholars are doing. It is also an opportunity for the Scholars themselves to get together, though this has been virtually on zoom for the past few years. Taryn Hutchinson is in her final year as a Scholar and she has written this piece for us.

This year’s Scholars’ Day marked the third one held online, and as I approach the end of my PhD, I’m really pleased to write this blog covering the day’s events.

As with the past two years, the scholars attended a practice session ahead of the main day, which allowed us to get feedback from each other and the trustees. I personally find the practice session a nice opportunity to interact with the other scholars, as there is less opportunity to do so (particularly in a less formal way) on the main day.

The main day itself took place across the morning and early afternoon, with two parallel Zoom rooms for attendees to choose from. Whilst the parallel sessions do mean you miss out on some of the talks occurring in the other room, having the sessions recorded allows you to catch up with them in your own time and overall shortens the day, which I think has its benefits as presentation fatigue can be all too real and it allows you the opportunity to give your full attention to these important projects at another time. Having the Scholars’ Day online also helps increase accessibility to the day, as depending on the location of an in-person day, this could be quite far for scholars, trustees and supporters to travel.

As I was presenting in the morning session, I heard about the incredible (and very different to my own) work being carried out by:

· Katherine Bird who is aiming to understand suicidal ideation and self-harm in the LGBTQIA+ community

· Jane Hahn who is investigating the role of emotion regulation, internalising and externalising symptoms in the aetiology of eating disorders

· Camilla Day who is investigating the contextual factors that may influence Psilocybin-assisted therapy for treatment resistant depression

In the second session I attended, I heard from:

· Tom Jenkins who is exploring the experience of de-humanisation by distressing psychotic voices

· Samantha Mitchell who is examining the neurocognitive basis of hallucinations in schizophrenia, by particularly focusing on reality monitoring and the role of the medial prefrontal cortex

· Sophie Chick who is identifying novel genes associated with schizophrenia

· Siobhan Lock who is exploring genetic markers and linked healthcare records to predict symptom improvement and drug response in schizophrenia

Something that I really enjoyed hearing about (and learning more about) was the ways in which scholars are collaborating with individuals with lived experience to inform on the design of their studies. For example, Katherine Bird spoke of adapting the Card Sort Task for Self-harm to an online setting, and through feedback from young people it was agreed that this would be better as a mobile phone application rather than something to be completed on a web desktop, as this is more accessible to young people; as well, working with LGBTQIA+ individuals to ensure items on the cards reflect their experiences of self-harm. I was inspired by Tom Jenkins’ work on developing a measure of de-humanisation and the involvement of individuals with lived experiences throughout the development of this measure. For example, at the beginning when deciding how to measure de-humanisation, Tom consulted with people with lived experience of psychosis about their experiences of de-humanisation, in addition to being guided by the literature. And then further on in the measure development when deciding which items to include, there was further consultation with experts by experience to get feedback on which items best captured their experiences. I thought this was a really nice example of how service users can be involved throughout the research process.

In between the two sessions, we heard from Dr Juliana Onwumere who was interviewed by Alexandra Schmidt. This interview covered a broad range of topics from Juliana’s initial journey into her current work and advice to her former self, through to advice on how to improve mental health services and ensuring research has the most clinical impact and facilitates change. For me, the latter two topics had some important take home messages. In terms of improving mental health services, Juliana spoke about the need for mental health services to be more diverse and the ways in which we tackle this are incredibly important. For example, not maintaining barriers for individuals from different groups to get involved with research and reminding us that groups are not hard to reach but rather the ways in which we communicate (e.g., through the language we use) and the research that is funded, can impact on these. In terms of ensuring research has clinical impact and facilitates change, Juliana invited us to redefine what we consider as impact. For example, the ways in which we share ideas and disseminate research through different media or through co-production with individuals with lived experiences can all contribute to impact.

Lastly, Professor Sir Mike Owen (Chair of Trustees) closed the Scholars’ Day with some hopeful words on fundraising opportunities starting to improve for Mental Health Research UK, meaning important research can continue being funded in the future. I think this is also an important reminder for us scholars that we are so fortunate to be able to carry out our research due to the supporters and organisers of Mental Health Research UK - something I know we are all extremely grateful for.

I would like to thank Clair Chilvers, Mike Owen, Vanessa Pinfold, Peter Jones, David Riggs and everyone else at MHRUK who gave their time to ensure the smooth running of another successful Scholars’ Day. And finally, a huge thanks to our supporters, who I really enjoy seeing each year.

Taryn Hutchinson

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