Research unit to bring evidence to forefront of mental health policy


University College London (UCL) and King’s College London are leading on setting up a new policy research unit, the NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit, which will bring mental health researchers, clinicians, service users and carers closer together. The main aim of the unit is to provide research to inform policy makers.

Commissioned by the Department of Health through the NIHR’s Policy Research Programme following an open competition, the policy research unit will be hosted at UCL and jointly led by UCL and King’s, alongside researchers from City, University of London and Middlesex University. It is funded at a cost of £5m for five years. I am the Director of the Unit, and the co-Director is Prof Paul McCrone of King’s, with Dr Bryn Lloyd-Evans (UCL) and Dr Sian Oram (King’s) as Deputies. A team of leading researchers in a range of fields of mental health are involved, and Dr Sarah Carr (Middlesex) will lead on Patient and Public Involvement and Co-production. A team of research staff with backgrounds including clinical research, qualitative methods, statistics, informatics and health economics will sit at UCL and at King’s.

The Policy Research Unit will bring mental health researchers, clinicians, service users and carers closer together, to provide research to inform policy makers.

The Policy Research Unit will bring mental health researchers, clinicians, service users and carers closer together, to provide research to inform policy makers.

Across the health care system, we know more about what works than is actually put into practice. Policy makers rarely have the latest research findings readily available, and key research questions often take much too long to answer for the policy timescale. We hope that we will be able to help policy makers, including Department of Health officials and key NHS England and Public Health England decision makers, to get access to relevant evidence that can help them make the best use of scarce resources. We will also be able to provide new evidence in response to high priority policy questions. Within our resources and timescales, we won’t be able to do very large-scale primary data collection, but we expect to be able to produce new evidence by methods such as bespoke analyses of existing data, including large public data sets, evidence syntheses and rapid qualitative case studies.

We will have a responsive core team, with staff already in place at UCL and King’s, and will be able to provide rapid response and signposting to experts where quick answers are needed. We are building up a broad network of experts to help ensure that policy makers will have access to the most comprehensive and up-to-date evidence to guide their plans, and we very much hope to be a channel by which researchers across the country can make sure their important policy-relevant findings have an impact. Our focus will be on prevention, access and quality across the whole field of mental health (though not dementia and intellectual disability), so that we do have a very broad remit. In some instances, we will seek experts outside our core group to take on short-term projects to which their expertise is relevant. We also have some very important collaborators beyond academia including the Mental Elf himself and the Centre for Mental Health: we hope that this will help us make sure that our findings and reports are widely disseminated, and there are many dialogues between our team and the whole range of stakeholders in the field of mental health research.

A network of Policy Research Units already exists to provide the Department of Health with evidence in areas including Children and Young People and Women’s Health, but this is the first such unit in mental health.

The focus of the Mental Health Policy Research Unit will be on the prevention of mental illness, access to services and quality of care.

The focus of the Mental Health Policy Research Unit will be on the prevention of mental illness, access to services and quality of care.

We are pleased that the Department of Health are funding the NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit. This presents a unique opportunity for the academic community to work closely with clinicians and service users in influencing and supporting mental health policy over the coming years. A major strength of the unit is its multi-disciplinary focus, bringing together quantitative and qualitative research, implementation science, and my own field of health economics.
– Professor Paul McCrone (King’s College London), co-director of the unit.

People who have used mental health services, some of whom are professional researchers, will be part of the team and will contribute their perspectives on equal terms. The unit’s research priorities will be set by the Department of Health and affiliated bodies, and the research team will be collaborating with all stakeholder groups to determine how to address them. We are currently establishing a core PPI group and our aim is that each substantial piece of work we undertake will have its own lived experience group, with co-production principles followed wherever this is feasible, especially in work that involves investigating service models or stakeholder experiences and views.

The unit is committed to maintaining a national focus thanks to a steering group hailing from across the country and by monitoring for regional inequalities, alongside other inequalities of all kinds.

Some quotes about aspirations for the new Unit:

Mental health is a major priority for this Government. We are working hard to put mental and physical health on an equal footing and have put record funding in mental health services. This new research unit will bring together a team of high calibre researchers to help government make the right, evidence-based decisions for people with mental health issues.
– Health Minister, Lord O’Shaughnessy.

We are proud and delighted to host the NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit at UCL. Mental health is a key strategic priority of our faculty and is an area in which we have many exciting new initiatives. We are committed to making a positive impact with our research and improving the lives and prospects of people affected by mental health disorders. The unit will be receiving valuable input from people across the university, including some of world’s foremost mental health researchers.
– Professor Alan Thompson, Dean, UCL Faculty of Brain Sciences.

Follow the new NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit on Twitter.

The Mental Health Policy Research Unit will be officially launched at our next Mental Health Question Time event in London on Wednesday 29th November. Free tickets will be made available for that event very soon.


Our next Mental Health Question Time will focus on evidence and mental health policy making.

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Sonia Johnson

Sonia Johnson studied medicine and also did an MSc in Social Psychology at LSE before training as a psychiatrist at the Maudsley. Her first academic post was as a Clinical Lecturer in Community Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry. She then moved to UCL, where she is now Professor of Social and Community Psychiatry. Her clinical work is as a consultant psychiatrist in the Early Intervention Service for psychosis in Islington, which she helped to set up - currently she specialises in seeing people with early bipolar. Her research interests have been wide ranging, recently including crisis and early intervention services, digital mental health, women’s mental health and loneliness and social isolation. She is Director of the NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit (@MentalHealthPRU) which provides evidence to inform policy and is currently working on a programme of rapid research related to the mental health care impact of COVID-19. She leads the UKRI Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Network (@UCL_Loneliness) with Alexandra Pitman. She is also is the proud Director of the MSc programme in the UCL Division of Psychiatry (@MentalHealthMSc), a source of quite a number of Elves and others who have been achieving amazing things.

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