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King's launches new mental health research PhD for health professionals

a graphic depiction of various healthcare professionals wearing white coats and scrubs

A new King’s PhD programme will provide mental health research training fellowships to doctors, nurses, psychologists and allied health professionals. The eight-year programme, offering 25 fellowships, has been funded by a grant of £7.8m from Wellcome Trust, with additional funding or support from a number of partners.

The King’s PhD Programme in Mental Health Research for Health Professionals will train the next generation of clinical academics in mental health research in a richly interdisciplinary training environment. Participants will take PhD fellowships across a diverse range of topics relevant to mental health science. Underpinning the programme is a commitment to expand diversity beyond science and professional backgrounds.

The award is a wonderful opportunity to build capacity in mental health science by training diverse groups of health professionals in research methods.  Our programme is built on three pillars reflecting opportunities to advance the understanding of mental disorders and ultimately inform their prevention and treatment: translational neuroscience, data and digital, and social science and policy.  Our PhD fellows will have supervision from both clinician scientists and methodology experts.– Professor Matthew Hotopf, Programme Director and Vice Dean (Research) at Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN)

All recent national strategies on mental health research recognise the need to expand the research workforce. Yet few PhD programmes nationally focus on mental health research in the UK and fewer still are accessible to health professionals. This new PhD programme will encourage clinicians both from within and outside disciplines traditionally involved in mental health to apply, and will encourage collaboration with non-clinical academics with technical and scientific skills often absent from traditional PhD programmes in mental health.

Widening Access

Key to the programme is facilitating access and making research more inclusive. Specifically, in developing the programme, three under-represented groups were identified as a particular focus:

  1. Health professionals with experiences of mental disorders face continued discrimination in addition to the challenges related to their mental health
  2. People from diverse racial and ethnic groups are starkly under-represented within academia and clinical research – the lack of diversity in academia likely begets a lack of diversity among research participants
  3. Nurses are under-represented in academic careers in mental health

Through a range of outreach/recruitment strategies, partnerships and mentoring options, this programme will seek out, encourage and support applications from each of these groups.

Preparatory fellowships, aimed at disciplines with fewer existing opportunities for research and to allow flexible research experience alongside clinical duties, will be provided by King’s, the Psychiatry Research Trust and NIHR Maudsley BRC.

I am delighted to support this fellowship which provides a route into research training for diverse communities. It is an enabling opportunity which attends to the diversity, inclusion and equity agenda is a creative and practical way. As the mental health equalities advisor for NHSEI and HEE I really welcome how this workforce approach contributes to the widening of access through a range of entry routes and diversifying training pipelines.– Dr Jacqui Dyer, MBE, Mental Health Equalities advisor for NHS England
The Chief Nursing Officer’s Strategic Plan for Research, which launched this month, will embed the importance of nurse-related research capacity and capability within health and care. Research led by nurses for transformational change is central to the CNO’s long-term vision and is integral to the COVID-19 response and recovery, as well as the NHS Long Term Plan. We are delighted with the launch of the King's PhD Programme in Mental Health Research for Health Professionals, which will provide opportunities for nurses to undertake cutting-edge mental health research within a supportive interdisciplinary research environment.– Emma Wadey, Deputy Director Mental Health Nursing, NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE/I)

Three Programmes of Research

The programme is built around three opportunities for mental health research borne out of advances in science and trends in society.

Translational neuroscience: The revolution in neuroscience methods means that the brain, in health and disease, can be studied in novel ways, providing mechanistic insights from the level of genes to cellular systems and cognitive processes. These PhD fellowships will equip candidates to cross the translational divide and bring insights from clinical studies to wet-lab research and vice versa, to develop novel treatments, biomarkers and diagnostics.

Digital technologies: The availability of data, AI tools to interrogate it, and digital platforms for therapies opens new avenues for mental health research. The programme will develop PhD fellows who understand the challenges of innovation in digital mental health, including epidemiology and statistics, computer science, informatics and digital therapies. We emphasise excellent patient and public involvement and user experience for therapies.

Society, policy and mental health: The increasing prevalence of mental disorders, particularly in young women, and the COVID pandemic has highlighted the unequal impacts of adversity on population mental health. The uneven distribution of some mental disorders and the differing experience of coercion by ethnic groups, means that health practitioners need to be able to form a nuanced understanding of how discrimination and other forms of adversity may impact both incidence of disorders and delivery of care. This PhD programme will develop clinical researchers able to better investigate these issues and inform policy and practice.

With our richly interdisciplinary research environment, King’s is ideally placed to host this PhD Programme. The growing burden of mental health problems is an enormous challenge facing our society, and our limited understanding of the factors influencing risk, resilience, and treatment response has restricted our ability to respond effectively to this challenge. Building capacity in mental health research, particularly engaging a range of health professionals and early career researchers is vitally important to address this.– Professor Richard Trembath, Senior Vice President (Health & Life Sciences) and Executive Director of King’s Health Partners

Partners and Programme Leadership

The programme’s interdisciplinary approach is reflected in leadership team, which comprises a Director and four Deputy Directors, representing diverse professional and scientific disciplines including psychology (Professor Rona Moss-Morris), nursing (Professor Alan Simpson), psychiatry (Professor Matthew Hotopf, who also acts as Director of the PhD Programme), social science (Professor Stephani Hatch) and neuroscience (Professor Sandrine Thuret).

The programme will benefit from the exceptionally close ties between the IoPPN and the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, which provides the widest range of NHS mental health services in the UK.

A broad network of partner organisations in industry, policy and third sector have offered support to further enrich the programme and give opportunities for longer term collaboration. In addition to the Wellcome Trust grant, the PhD programme will receive additional funding from King’s College London, the Psychiatry Research Trust and NHSE/I. The programme will also offer development opportunities or potential collaborations with organisations such as Mental Elf, MQ Mental Health Research and Lundbeck.

Applications for this PhD programme will open in the coming weeks. Further information on eligibility and details on how to apply are available here.

A Mental Elf podcast on this PhD programme is available here.