How different sectors work together to improve mental health

By Louise Arseneault, ESRC Mental Health Leadership Fellow set up this roundtable and is the author of this blog

The current synergy around mental health calls for greater collaboration between academia and the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector to better understand, prevent and treat mental health conditions. The need for this partnership emerges from both sides.

On the one hand, academic institutions are increasingly demanding evidence of 'impact' to show their research investments are making a difference to peoples' lives. The VCSE sector is an established mechanism in place for research findings to translate into practice aimed at people affected by mental health conditions. 

On the other hand, to benefit from sustainable development, the VCSE sector must show their programmes have a tangible impact on the mental health of community members. To achieve this, the sector relies upon research expertise so that independent and thorough evaluations of their programmes can be conducted. An additional motivation to strengthen partnerships between the VCSE sector and academia stems from research funders themselves. Funders are actively reaching out to the mental health community demanding better use of research, and demand that research projects include active participation from the third sector. 

However, these partnerships can often be difficult to establish and maintain for various reasons, including lack of communication; inability to maintain partnerships; difference of language and terminology; divergent aims; varied timelines; and non-reciprocal relationships.

To discuss how the VCSE sector and academia can build more productive relationships to augment mental health research, a roundtable was organised in March 2018 by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Mental Health Leadership Fellow, in collaboration with the Association of Mental Health Providers and the Mental Health Foundation. 

Delegates corresponded on the importance of establishing strong links with academia but also emphasised the frustrations and difficulties in doing so. Delegates also recognised that greater collaboration between the VCSE sector and academia would require a change of culture, which could potentially take a long time. However, the group agreed that establishing greater links with early career researchers could facilitate greater collaboration with academia; as early career researchers may readily be willing to engage with the third sector. 

The discussion focused on ways to facilitate partnerships between the VCSE sector and academia:

  • Raising awareness: to build a greater sense of understanding of how both sectors can support one another by promoting the work of the VCSE sector and making research findings more accessible (e.g. including research in open access journals).
  • Creating a database of VCSE partners to facilitate communication and disseminate information. This database would be created and managed by the Mental Health Leadership Fellow to enable the sharing of information about funding initiatives, research opportunities and related news beneficial to the mental health community spanning across the VCSE sector and academia. 
  • Encouraging networking events hosted by the research funders: to mix academics and members of the VCSE community to encourage collaborations when important funding calls for proposals are announced. Recent opportunities have included the Medical Research Council (MRC) UK Prevention Research Partnership (UKPRP) call and the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Mental Health Network Plus Call, which required strong collaboration with VCSE sector partners. These opportunities should also strengthen participation from early career researchers. 
  • Developing opportunities for young professionals: Creating greater opportunities for early career researchers to collaborate with the VCSE sector and students/young professionals from the VCSE sector to work with academic partners through initiatives such as internships. 
  • Increasing research opportunities for the VCSE sector: to augment discoveries coming from research practices, VCSE partners could be considered as co-PI on grant applications. 
  • Engaging with and building the capacity of smaller charities: to consolidate the work of emerging groups by upskilling communication and speed networking events, for example. 

The roundtable brought together representatives from the Centre for Mental Health, Imagine Independence, Making Space, Mental Health Foundation, Mind, Red Balloon Learner Centre, Rethink Mental Illness, Second Step, National Survivor User Network and Turning Point.

The contributions of these organisations are highly valued, and to build on these discussions the Mental Health Leadership Fellow plans on holding a wider event, again in collaboration with the Association of Mental Health Providers and Mental Health Foundation. The meeting would anticipate participation from government, academia and charity and will be arranged in upcoming months.