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Shifting the Narrative: Reflections from the CSMH Conference

The ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health held its inaugural annual conference on the 23rd – 25th March 2021. The conference, entitled Social Change, Inequality and Mental Health: Shifting the Narrative, aims to give a platform for the Centre, our partners, and community organisations to improve understanding of the complex interrelationships between society and mental health. Co-Directors Professor Craig Morgan and Dr Hanna Kienzler share their reflections on the conference and the next steps for the Centre.

It was a delight to welcome delegates to the inaugural annual conference of our newly established ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health at King’s College London.

We established the Centre in January 2020 to examine the impacts of rapid social change on mental health, with the overall vision of delivering research to promote and sustain good mental health in communities. No one could have anticipated that, within 3 months of the Centre starting, we would be living through one of the most profound periods of social change in living memory, as a consequence of Covid-19. Like others, we redirected our efforts and much of the work delivered during our first year has focused on the impacts of Covid-19 on mental health. However, this has not been our only focus and we have worked to develop and sustain partnerships with users, community organisations, and other stakeholders.

The conference, entitled “Social Change, Inequality and Mental Health: Shifting the Narrative”, provided a wonderful opportunity for us to connect with our network of partners and wider audiences and to raise the profile of the Centre. We assembled a programme that sought to reflect our approach and ethos with many contributions from affected communities, local organisations, and the arts with a focus on the impacts of social change on mental health among young people and marginalised communities and in relation to work and welfare.

We were thrilled to receive over 800 registrations from delegates in over 40 countries representing different disciplines, experiences, voices, and viewpoints! One positive of our move online over the past year is that we can now more readily connect with many more people from across the globe, something which we need to retain as social restrictions ease.

The central theme of the conference was Shifting the Narrative. We asked the question: What should we talk about when we talk about mental health? It was especially pleasing, given this focus, that Prof Sandro Galea – whose work inspired the question – gave the opening plenary address. The answer? We need to talk about populations, inequality, power, social justice, and more. We need to broaden our gaze from individuals to the social structures, relationships, and experiences – and the power imbalances and inequalities inherent in these –that shape our daily lives.

These themes recurred throughout the conference. There were many highlights.

Conference Highlights

On Day 1, we heard directly from young people working with the BIGKID Foundation – a key Centre partner that works with young people at risk of exclusion in South London – about what they talk about when they talk about mental health. Later, we went from the local to the global with a symposium in which several contributors challenged the currently dominant narratives in Global Mental Health that focus on ‘the treatment gap’, arguing for a shift to consider social determinants and community-based responses.

On Day 2, we learned how music can support young people with mental health problems through a wonderful workshop led by the City of London Sinfonia, an orchestra of over 40 professional musicians dedicated to harnessing the power of music to transform the lives of people across society. The day closed with a powerful talk from journalist and writer, Mary O Hara, whose work shows how the toxic narrative that surrounds poverty has profound impacts on well-being.

On Day 3, the focus shifted to what we can do to bring about changes that promote mental health and well-being. The importance of bottom-up, community-led initiatives was perfectly illustrated in the session led by Faith, which introduced us to a community-led programme involving a partnership between Black Thrive and McPin using participatory approaches to address systemic inequalities in employment for Black people. We also showcased the work of our Early Career Researchers before closing the conference with a panel of four leading experts – Akiko Hart, Catherine Roche, Hari Sewall, and Norman Lamb – in conversation with Claudia Hammond. Each provided insightful responses to questions from delegates, many focusing on change - on challenging the racist, inequitable, and exclusionary structures that shape many people’s lives.

It was fitting to end the conference looking forward and thinking concretely about how to promote and sustain good mental health in communities – the core vision for the Centre.

It is in this spirit that we look to further develop the work of the Centre. The conference reinforced for us the central importance of working in full partnership with affected communities; it underscored the importance of shifting narratives around mental health and poverty as a basis for change; and it illustrated the value of community-led initiatives in achieving positive change in people’s lives.

These are our initial reflections.

We very much hope the conference is the beginning of our engagement with all participants and look forward to seeing you all again next year. Please do keep in touch:


Conference Resources

Day 1 Welcome

Session 1: Keynote speech by Sandro Galea

Session 2A: I Wanna Know If You Can See Me. Can You Really See Me? - Young People and Mental Health, BIGKID Foundation

Session 2B: Why is precarious employment bad for mental health?

Session 2C: Communities and Racism in Mental Health

Session 3: Mental Health in Context: A Renewed Agenda for Global Mental Health

Dr Dörte Bemme, Centre for Society & Mental Health, King’s College London
Dr Rochelle Burgess, UCL Centre for Global Non-Communicable Diseases, UCL Institute for Global Health
Dr Georgina Miguel Esponda, Centre for Society & Mental Health, King’s College London
Prof. Francisco Ortega, Instituto de Medicina Social, Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro
Dr Soumitra Pathare, Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy
Dr Tessa Roberts, Centre for Society & Mental Health, King’s College London 
Dr Tatiana Taylor Salisbury, Centre for Global Mental Health, King’s College London
Dr Felipe Szabzon and Dr Laura Helena Silveira Guerra de Andrade, Instituto de Psiquiatria da Universidade de São Paulo 

Session 5: Social Policy and Mental Health, Professor Mauricio Avendano Pabon

Session 7A: LGBTQ Mental Health, Inequalities and Community Support

Session 7B: Adversity in communities and mental health: Biological and psychological mechanisms

Session 7C: Creative Performances

Session 9A: Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health and Wellbeing: Predictable Disparities and Surprising Findings

Session 9B: Sound Young Minds: How an orchestra can support young people with mental health illnesses

Session 10: Poverty, Shame and Mental Health - Key note speech by Mary O'Hara

Session 13A: How to close the mental health income gap

Session 13B: How do you change inequalities in a system? Reflections of a lived experience researcher on Black Community Led grant-making

Session 14A: Influencing change to improve all Londoners opportunity to good mental health and wellbeing

Session 14B: Impact of mental health problems on leisure and recreation: a health economic perspective

Session 14C: Integrating community voices into public mental health evidence and practice

Session 15: The Next Generation of Researchers - CSMH Early Career Researcher Showcase

Session 16: In Conversation - The Future for Society and Mental Health

Hári Sewell
Akiko Hart
Sir Norman Lamb
Catherine Roche
Claudia Hammond

Conference Closing Remarks


If you have any questions about the conference or the Centre, please email

In this story

Craig Morgan

Craig Morgan

Professor of Social Epidemiology

Hanna Kienzler

Hanna Kienzler

Professor of Global Health

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