For the past year, we’ve been cultivating an interest in mental health and wellbeing, particularly the role that spirituality and meaning can play in this. From this interest we’ve been developing a programme of work that we’re introducing with this post.
Science Practice works across many different domains and cause areas, but we have recently created a stream of work focused on mental health and wellbeing. We use ‘wellbeing’ as well as ‘mental health’ for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this term includes a wider range of problems – we’re interested in improving people’s wellbeing even if they don’t have a diagnosable mental health condition. Secondly, it includes a wider range of thought and practice – bringing in ideas, frameworks, and solutions from outside of the health field.
This interest has developed out of our personal experience, long-time intellectual curiosity in this area, and a steadily growing portfolio of work we’ve done for funders.
Through our own experiences, we’ve gained a deep understanding of how mental health issues can alter and challenge daily life, and we’ve experimented with a mix of methods and techniques to deal with these difficulties to varied effects. We’ve also seen friends, family, and members of our communities suffer from mental health issues and have become more generally concerned about widespread mental ill health among young people.
This concern is heightened by social forces which can impact mental health, such as social media, social isolation, and sedentary lifestyles, plus the inadequacy of current mental health care systems to meet demand and sufficiently tackle the problem.
We’ve been excited by newly emerging possibilities for tackling this problem, some of which are genuinely new and some of which are rooted in ancient traditions. The most hyped is psychedelic psychotherapy, but others that also look promising include body-focussed trauma therapies, a wide variety of meditation and spiritual techniques beyond mindfulness, group approaches such as men’s work and women’s work, and simple therapeutic techniques that can be done alone or with peers. For this reason, a major area of interest for us is practices and techniques outside of current clinical mental health, with a particular interest in spirituality broadly considered.
We’ve also been inspired by reading accounts from people who have significantly improved their wellbeing. They have often followed a complex path that involves psychotherapy, meditation, psychedelics, self-therapy techniques, and more. While these are only anecdotal, they do suggest change is possible when people can find the right combination of solutions for them, and use these in the right order.
Similar directions have emerged out of our client work in the areas of wellbeing and lived experience. For instance, the idea of highly-customised, self-created solutions also came up in a project where we explored research priorities for chronic pain for the Wellcome Trust. When talking to people with lived experience, it was apparent that they had developed complex, customised methods to cope with their conditions. We’ve noticed a great deal of untapped expertise on customised interventions among people with lived experience, particularly people with lived experience of recovery.
As our interest in mental health and wellbeing has grown, we’ve become increasingly motivated to contribute to solving the problems we see. As researchers and designers with existing expertise in problem identification, grantmaking ecosystems, and funding programme design, we’ve been looking at our existing knowledge and skills to figure out what role we can play in advancing progress in this exciting area. We’re also aware that this is a very messy space, where it is difficult to understand what is credible, what works, and what is safe. Thinking about evidence and epistemology will therefore be crucial.
We think this is a timely and important moment to further define, grow, and evidence the field of mental health and wellbeing. Drawing on our expertise in doing strategic work for research and innovation funders, here are several areas where we think we would be best placed to contribute.
We’d like to help funders and other field-shapers to understand what is already being done, what the gaps are, and what promising directions they could support.
Funder strategies: Landscape mapping to understand the range of possible strategies that funders could take in this space. This would involve understanding key strategic debates in mental health research funding, the positions different funders take on these, and gaps that funders could fill.
Spirituality landscape: A landscaping project to map out the space of spirituality and wellbeing, with the aim of understanding what research work has been done, how it intersects with mental health, and where the gaps are. We’d also like to understand how research funders could support work in this space.
Understanding breakthroughs: Research to better understand where valuable breakthroughs and interventions in mental health have historically come from and the conditions that enabled them, particularly looking at interventions that come from outside of academic mental health science.
Informal mental health practices landscape: Many people turn to practices outside of clinical mental health services. Research to better understand what informal practices people turn to and why, and what kinds of effects they have could help identify potentially impactful practices.
We would like to work together with funders to design and run funding programmes that target important gaps in the landscape such as:
Recovery case studies: Fund qualitative work gathering case studies from people who have recovered from mental health conditions to understand the full complexity of their recovery pathways. This could then be used to inform funding and research agendas that attempt to understand and work with this complexity.
Impact evaluation of wellbeing practices: Fund impact evaluation of interventions that practitioners and people with lived experience think are helpful, but for which little scientific evidence exists.
Methodological issues in mental health and wellbeing: Fund work to address methodological issues that crop up in studying spiritual and other non-medical wellbeing practices for mental health and wellbeing, such as blinding, consent, and the adequacy of self-report.
As we build up connections in this field, we’d like to bring together people who share an interest in the intersection of mental health and wellbeing, and spirituality.
Bringing research expertise together with practitioner knowledge: There is potentially a wealth of practitioner knowledge with unrealised potential. To better establish, consolidate, scale, and document this, we need to build connections between practitioners and researchers.
Supporting dialogue and debate in sub-fields with distinct, competing approaches: For example, in psychedelics, some favour a more medical-based model, whereas others advocate for community-led approaches. Creating a space where these perspectives can interact and build on each other could help advance the conversation.
Bringing people with lived experience together to share their own mental health and wellbeing pathways, challenges and successes: This could contribute to building up an understanding of what kinds of things help people improve their wellbeing and recover from mental health issues. Stories from this could be used to develop the recovery case studies mentioned above.
There is a huge need for greater wellbeing, and many promising solutions, but this is also an area with a history of hype, disappointment, and harm. We’d like to work together with funders and other field-shapers to further define and develop this space and contribute to better mental health and wellbeing for everyone.
If you are interested in pursuing these directions and ideas — as a funder, researcher, practitioner, or person with lived experience — get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you.
We are a close team of designers and researchers who are passionate about tackling ambitious and important problems. If you’re looking to grow your impact, we’d love to hear from you!