Fresh from having a new paper published, Professor Louise Arseneault, Professor of Developmental Psychology at Kings College London, joined the MQ Open Mind podcast team, Professor Rory O’Connor and Craig Perryman, to chat about collaboration in research.
Professor Louise Arseneault, from Montreal is French-Canadian and studied in Psycho-education. Originally trained to work with people with mental health conditions her undergraduate degree didn’t directly lead her to the career that would sustain. She wanted, in her words “a better way of helping people who suffer” and so decided to do a PhD in biomedical sciences which ultimately led her to the world of research. She first started doing research by collecting data as part of a longitudinal data set (data collected over a long period of time). Her postdoc funding brought her to the UK and this podcast interview coincides with her 25th anniversary of living in Britain.
Funding for her studies brought her to the UK but what brought her to mental health research?
“What brought me into mental health is I always wanted to engage in a support relationship. I thought that dealing with physical health was too concrete. I didn’t want to work with arms or skin. I wanted to work with something which was more abstract. The mind is a big challenge.”
When she first entered mental health research, Louise admits humbly her own “lack of knowledge” which fuelled a desire to understand more. An invitation to continue studying towards a PhD after her degree led her into research and, despite grappling with imposter syndrome which also admits in this episode, 25 years later she’s still researching.
The definition of her career, she says, is the importance of data collection. Good quality data collection means good quality research. As she puts it, the quality of data is “the foundation for everything” and she laments the researchers who see data collection as “just a step”. In her interview, she emphasises the importance of not just the data collected but who collects it and therefore how it’s funded.
From Montreal to London, her career then took her to work with groups in New Zealand, establishing longitudinal data focusing on aggressive behaviours. This move took her career to the next level of impact. She met policy makers, sharing her results. After working on an established study in New Zealand, her focus became research into mental health conditions, specifically the causes.
“While I was not necessarily interested by a specific condition I was very much interested by risk factors and testing those risk factors and to what extent do they really contribute to the development of mental health problems.”
Bullying – No Longer Dismissed
After training, Louise worked on a long-term study which would become the National Child Development study which examined whether being bullied in childhood could have long-term impact. This was, to Louise, the most impactful paper of which she’s been a part.
“Suddenly bullying, which was dismissed for many years as ‘oh it’s part of life it’s not important’ suddenly it was the cover of the American Journal of Psychiatry.”
Suddenly Louise became a scientific cover girl. Newspapers and other media outlets became interested and Louise was thrust into the limelight, appearing in interviews including on the Today programme.
“Coming back from the BBC, I went back to my office opened my computer turned on my computer, I look at my emails and suddenly I had lots of emails from the public saying ‘hey I heard you this morning in the news and what you described is my life’. To me that was impact.”
But what were her findings that resonate? She explains one important finding in her career.
Compared to those who hadn’t been bullied, participants in Louise’s research who were bullied between the ages of 7 and 11:
- had more symptoms of mental health problems
- more physical health problems
- had worse socioeconomic outcomes
- had been doing less well in terms of employment
- had trouble in establishing relationships
So what needs to change? Louise says her research shows policy changes should support any intervention in schools that aims to stop bullying behaviour. In her opinion, we should support anti-bullying programs in schools and she notes schools have a responsibility of making their institution a safe place for all children, to prevent mental illness and suicide. She sees it as a reframing of our approach as a society to the problem of bullying.
“We need to focus a little bit more on the victims. We need to make sure victims are supported when they experience bullying victimization. We don’t need to call the psychiatrist straight away but we need to be able to provide some kind of network of support for those kids who experience something traumatic.”
Loneliness – A Door To Inquire
The next step for Louise was seeing the connection between childhood experiences, mental illness and loneliness. An interest began to develop into forms of poor social relationships. Quite often, she indicates, we associate loneliness with elderly people but it’s important to recognise loneliness is most prevalent in young people. The link between childhood loneliness and mental illness is a vital area to focus on, she believes.
“If someone complains of loneliness, it’s an entry into someone’s life which is not going so well. We should absolutely not dismiss that. We should use this door to inquire a little bit more, especially as a part of the pandemic which increased loneliness despite that narrative around access to social media.”
MQ are indeed looking into the mental health of young people post-pandemic and are supporting projects that look to find solutions and new ways to treat mental health conditions in young people, with new studies beginning in this specific area in 2024.
Collaboration – A Data Enrichment
Louise’s passion for wide reaching data comes across clearly. Recent work includes a “fantastic team of people who were absolutely determined” to gather the widest possible collection of data. They identified 8000 data sets with 3000 being in long term data collection groups, across 146 countries. As she says it’s important to scan the whole world, not just high income countries that have more resources. And these data sets need not be from mental health studies only.
“We’ve been so lucky to be able to work with MQ who took on the challenge of making sure lived experience experts were part of this project throughout. The aim of the project was really to identify those data sets so I was kind of going well how can lived experience be involved in this? MQ really changed my vision about about lived experience involvement in the project.”
MQ set up a theory of change process involving people with lived experience and also people from different backgrounds. With MQ, Louise discussed the value of longitudinal data sets, how they could potentially be enriched and what would be the pockets of value to explore further in those data sets. She says she and her colleagues really took on board this information and emphasises the importance of the shift affected by MQ.
“Very few longitudinal data sets work with lived experience experts so this is one part of the enrichment that was very clear in our report that we need to really promote engagement with either service users, community or people with lived experience to make sure this happens.”
If you want to find out more about Lived Experience Experts or PPIE (Patient and Public Involvement) and how MQ is encouraging this please click this link and if you’d like to take part in studies into mental health, find out more about our Participate programme here.
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