Innovative research shines light on misunderstood mental health issues in Wales

  • Conducted by a team at Cardiff University, this study examined links between cognitive function and mental health disorders.
  • Almost 4,000 volunteers from public health research registry, HealthWise Wales, took part.
  • The study found that people experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety had decreased cognitive function.

A post-doctoral researcher in psychology is calling for better education on misunderstood mental health conditions — following the results of a research project with Wales’s national, health research registry, Healthwise Wales.

Early career researcher, Dr Amy Lynham, led the research project at Cardiff University — which saw her team investigate the link between cognitive function and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

Cognitive function is a broad term that means ‘using your brain’ — but it can be broken down into specific abilities such as learning, thinking, reasoning, remembering, problem solving, decision making and paying attention.

So far, the project found that people with symptoms of depression and anxiety (with or without a diagnosis) were more likely to experience decreased cognitive function, including difficulties with their memory and problem-solving skills.

The study has found that people experiencing decreased cognitive function reported higher levels of disability, including problems with managing self-care, household responsibilities, social relationships, and mobility.

People who scored in the bottom 15% of the sample were 47% more likely to report difficulties with their self-care. Meanwhile, 29% were more likely to report mobility problems and 20% were more likely to have difficulty managing their household and dealing with people.

Dr Lynham’s career in psychology was inspired by her upbringing in Tonyrefail — a working-class town in the South Wales Valleys, where lots of people she knew experienced mental health issues.

The lack of solutions, practical help and education around such issues encouraged Amy to dedicate her work to researching lesser-known mental health disorders — in the hope of combatting the stigma in Wales and beyond.

It all started with Dr. Lynham’s PhD  from 2014 to 2017— which saw her develop the Cardiff Online Cognitive Assessment (CONCA), a first of its kind online test, specifically designed to target the areas affected by mental health, which sped up the usually time intensive process of cognitive testing while reducing costs.

The CONCA brought the research project to an initial sample of 1,000 people who had been diagnosed with or experienced symptoms of mental health conditions. Following this, Dr Lynham and her team expanded the study by gathering a population sample, allowing them to compare their research to mental health in the population.

The team achieved this through HealthWise Wales — an online research registry and data collection platform with more than 4,000 participants, designed to enable Welsh people to influence and take part in public health research.

Speaking of her experience, Dr. Lynham said: “I was amazed by the level of enthusiastic and altruistic people willing to take part in the study — Healthwise Wales was truly an incredible tool for our research.

“We had a target of 1,000 responses but in the end almost 4,000 people took part — with over 50% of participants also completing optional extras. With thanks to HealthWise Wales, we now have this huge sample which has already highlighted many factors that we did not expect, such as links between cognitive function and physical health related factors such as, BMI, smoking and physical activity levels.

“I’d like to extend a personal thank you to every single person who participated — you have directly helped us to develop our understanding of mental health… And all from a Wales base, no less!”

HealthWise Wales Director, Professor Sunil Dolwani, said: “Dr Lynham’s groundbreaking research, conducted in collaboration with HealthWise Wales, is a testament to the impactful strides we can make when researchers and communities join forces.

“We are proud to support research that not only challenges existing stigmas but also contributes valuable insights to the broader conversation on mental health. Dr. Lynham’s work exemplifies the collaborative spirit at the heart of HealthWise Wales, and we look forward to fostering more partnerships that drive positive change.”

When asked about her hopes for the future of mental health research in Wales and beyond, Dr. Lynham continued: “It’s great that since the pandemic people are talking more openly about mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, because with these conversations comes more funding for important research.

“However, not all mental health conditions are treated equally and there are still so many misconceptions around lesser-understood conditions like psychosis and schizophrenia —meaning that they are not receiving the funding they need for essential research.

“I think it’s hugely important for there to be more education around mental health conditions in schools, challenging misinformation, so that the next generation have the knowledge and understanding to take part in this discourse.”

 

If you would like to find out more about how HealthWise Wales could benefit your research or how you can take part in research studies yourself, visit: www.healthwisewales.org/