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.