Blending data and disciplines to improve youth mental health

By Romana Khan, Associate at Social Finance

The Wellcome Data Prizes are a series of open competitions in which participants use existing data to answer important research questions. The first prize builds on Wellcome’s work in understanding the aspects of a mental health intervention that make it effective. It will bring together multidisciplinary teams to explore the question: what are the active ingredients that make a difference in preventing, treating, and managing anxiety and depression in young people?

We recently hosted a webinar for prospective Data Prize applicants, and to explore how initiatives such as CLOSER, ALSPAC, and the Catalogue of Mental Health Measures are enhancing the use of existing data to further our understanding of mental health. Watch a video of the webinar, and then read on to learn about three key themes that emerged from the session.

Maximising the impact of longitudinal studies

Longitudinal population studies are incredibly valuable resources as they allow researchers to see how individuals in the study develop over time, often from birth and in relation to their same age cohort. Through cross-study comparison, development can be compared with those born at different times.

CLOSER has aided cross-study analysis by harmonising some variables across multiple leading longitudinal studies. This means ensuring differences across the datasets are not due to varying methods or discrepancies in how the data is collected. These studies enable mental health researchers to analyse how biological, psychological or social risk factors interact to increase the risk of developing depression or anxiety.

Within the Data Prize we wish to explore such things as:

  • Which factors are most important in preventing or reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression?
  • Can we predict who will be best protected from mental illness and why?
  • How might this help us to design successful interventions in future?

Linking data to create a stronger picture

Mental health is influenced by biological, psychological, and social factors that are intricately intertwined. We need to understand more about the processes that give rise to poor mental health and the factors that can help address it.

The ALSPAC study is a multi-generational study for which data has been collected over 30 years. A range of metrics have been collected with 1.5 million biological samples as well as measures of environment, pollution and cognitive abilities. To augment this, data is also continually linked to education, health and earnings records, allowing richer insight into the factors that affect health.

Within the Data Prize we will be directing participants to longitudinal studies from the UK and South Africa that have been selected for the rich data and breadth of metrics collected.

Enabling multidisciplinary approaches

Agreeing common ways of measuring mental health outcomes helps researchers to standardise measurement across disciplines. To get the deepest understanding we need a multidisciplinary approach to mental health research where people from varied backgrounds including data expertise and lived experience researchers can collaborate.

The Catalogue of Mental Health Measures helps enable this by compiling details on the full spectrum of mental health topics. Researchers can search by topic, study or instrument, and find measures related to their search. For example, when looking into depression, researchers can also study diet, neighbourhood or personality types. By providing a wide range of measures and metrics as well as details as to when and how these have been captured, the Catalogue aids the harmonisation of studies and enables multidisciplinary research.

Through the prize we aim to bring together multidisciplinary teams led from the UK and South Africa, building a mental health science community of researchers, data scientists and people with lived experience.

How can I get involved?

If you are interested in joining our community and wish to find out more please sign up to our newsletter or email The Data Prize is looking to encourage the use of existing datasets such as those mentioned above to find exciting new insights. As part of this we will be signposting access to core datasets that have been chosen for their ability to provide rich insight, as well as providing the opportunity for participants to analyse their own data. We will be sharing more in the coming weeks about how we will be supporting participants to shape research questions.

We’re very grateful to our panellists for their insights:

Louise Arseneault, Professor of Developmental Psychology at KCL and developer of Catalogue of Mental Health Measures

Lyn Molloy, Chief Operating Officer, ALSPAC

Rebecca Hardy, Director of CLOSER



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