Strengthening the evidence base for UK mental health charities

19 July 2016

Evidence is a hotly debated topic in the mental health sector. A recent report by Leonora Buckland and Caroline Fiennes called for more rigorous evaluation into the effectiveness of charities’ interventions, charities to make greater use of academic literature and charities and academics to more actively disseminate their evidence of what works.

The availability and applicability of evidence needs to be improved; and the ways in which mental health charities’ evidence is produced, synthesised, disseminated and used should be strengthened.

This report is a contribution to an ongoing conversation amongst mental health charities and with our academic and public sector colleagues. Whenever I discuss evidence with other mental health charities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland they recognise that using evidence will improve what they are doing, and create real change in people’s lives. 

Challenges

When we are advocating for an improved evidence base, we are pushing an open door with mental health charities. However, there are challenges:

  • the historical underinvestment in mental health research and innovation
  • paltry funding for evaluations as a percentage of programme funding
  • lack of knowledge and skills about evaluation within non-research charities
  • lack of confidence and negotiating power with funders around evaluation. 

This can result in weak evaluation design using generic methods and measures, or overly ambitious evaluation designs that have been promised to the funder but cannot be delivered within the allocated resource. Such evaluations do not meet a persuasive threshold for mainstream services or policy makers. As the Foundation highlighted in our recent publication Demonstrating the value of the voluntary and community sectors, these challenges are magnified in approaches such as economic evaluation that may be outside of the expertise of both the funder and the charity. 

The voluntary and community sectors are often ahead of the curve in identifying emerging issues, gaps in provision and opportunities for impact with often the most marginalised and under-served groups in our society. Robust evaluation is an important resource in communicating both this need and also effective solutions to those decision makers who are in a position to respond with initiatives at a scale that will create substantial change.

Investing in improving the evidence base

As a research organisation and a member of the Alliance for Mental Health Research Funders and the Charity Evaluation Working Group, the Foundation is investing in improving the evidence base amongst mental health charities.

Research funding for mental health is tiny compared to that for cancer.

Mental health research receives a tiny proportion of health research funding in the UK, 150 times less than cancer research funding per person affected, so we know that mental health charities are already on the back foot. When power dynamics are overlaid onto such low investment, the public voice in research is muted – particularly the voices of people with lived experience of mental health problems and of groups who experience inequalities.

The Mental Health Foundation, as the UK’s leading mental health charity, has evolved an approach that integrates our research with our policy advocacy, campaigning, public information and innovation programmes. As a research charity we ensure that all our work is evidence based – this is the standard, which makes us an authoritative, credible and trusted source of mental health expertise. As a voluntary organisation we bridge communication between real world experience, practice, policy and theory. Our Research Strategy and approach emphasises the importance of participation, impact and evidence, contributed by:

  • undertaking original research
  • synthesising existing knowledge
  • translating this research to further understanding of what works
  • transferring interventions to other populations and places at a scale that maximises benefit and impact, and including mental health in all policies.

If we are to create meaningful change in the mental health and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities, we must work together to strengthen the mental health evidence base that underpins charities’ work.