It’s the start of a new season with spring sprung and the start of a new series of Open Minds, MQ’s podcast where we speak to researchers, celebrities and people with lived experience of mental illness about the latest progress in mental health research.
In our first episode, Professor Rory and MQ’s Craig Perryman were delighted to welcome Dr Anne Duffy to join them. Dr Duffy is Professor of Psychiatry at Queen’s University Kingston and Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford.
With World Bipolar Day approaching later this month (30 March 2023), Dr Duffy’s earliest areas of research is very timely.
This particular mental health condition and one particular man both had a huge effect on Dr Duffy’s career. Dr Paul Grof from the Czech Republic, a classically trained psychiatrist who had dedicated his life to researching bipolar disorder, became Anne’s mentor when she was training in psychiatry. Dr Duffy was a part of his research team, meeting families affected by the illness.
“I was struck by how clear [the families affected by bipolar disorder] were on their history; when an episode of major depression hit. It was so debilitating and awful that they remember the date of onset, the duration and the difference between depressive symptoms and major depressive episodes. And they’d ask me ‘do you think my children will develop my illness?’”
That question stuck with Dr Duffy. Back then, researchers didn’t have clear indicators to predict the likelihood of bipolar disorder based on genetics since only adults were assessed. So, when Dr Duffy considered her future research, this was one unanswered question to which she kept returning. Fortunately, her mentor had the foresight to back her instinct and agreed Dr Duffy would begin to assess adults with bipolar and their children.
In the podcast she speaks about her initial study and the incredible next 25 years researching with her mentor. The podcast covers what bipolar disorder is, the range of experiences during mania or hypomania and depressive episodes are covered, the link with creativity and bipolar disorder and what it’s like living with the condition, how common it is and the differences between the symptoms.
The high-risk families and children Dr Duffy worked with at this time helped her create ‘Flourish’ – a study into bipolar disorder and prevalence in families with parents who have a diagnosis.
Of course, children grow up to become young adults and they often become students. And student mental health and well-being was an area ripe for research. So, much like the subjects of her research, Dr Duffy’s career also grew. Flourish developed to become the U-Flourish study, focusing on student well-being and mental health.
“We immediately learned from the high-risk study (Flourish) that most of the children will actually NOT develop major psychiatric illnesses. We do want to identify those most at risk though, so we can motivate them and their families to make healthy lifestyle choices, mitigate symptoms as soon as they arise and use early interventions.”
Students participated in voluntary studies, informing the beginnings of U-Flourish which continues to be a great success. At the start of the study in 2018, around 3,029 individuals took part and now over 10,000 students are involved. Shortly after the start of the study, Dr Duffy was offered the chance to be a visiting fellow at Oxford which led to even further exciting research into student mental health.
“[U-Flourish] has become a great collaboration… it’s always been all digital, even before Covid. This course is so popular – it’s an elective that has spread now – from health sciences, life sciences, arts and sciences and now there’s interest from engineering and some of the professional schools. Even high school students will soon be able to take part too!”
Excitingly, the UK is next to get involved. Now, a rebranding means the ‘U-Flourish’ study is coming to a British student audience as ‘Nurture-U’ – so those studying in the United Kingdom can soon help Dr Duffy continue her research.
Dr Duffy speaks in the podcast candidly about the current pressures put upon universities when it comes to student well-being.
“Universities have been on their back heels because of an increased demand from students for wellbeing and mental health support. Traditionally, universities have been debating their role in all this because of course there’s the NHS and community services. Universities have been quick to accept they need to provide a healthy learning environment to support well-being but then it becomes blurry as to whose responsibility is it when students start getting into trouble. And that’s understandable.”
Dr Duffy’s next areas of research include big questions like – what is mental health and what is mental illness? She wants to make research studies “more cool” for students and it seems from her enlivening interview, she’s very much doing just that. Dr Anne’s enthusiasm is infectious and continues into her ongoing studies and partnerships.
“This has just been such an awesome exciting journey and story and in such a short period of time!”
And we at MQ can not wait to see what the next part of Dr Duffy’s research journey leads both her, the students involved and what more her work can reveal to us all.
Watch or listen to the episode by clicking on this link or the video below.
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