Brain Sciences


Q&A with mental health expert Dr Gemma Lewis

4 August 2021

We speak to Dr Gemma Lewis, a psychiatric epidemiologist from UCL’s Division of Psychiatry, on her involvement with a new mental health programme led by the Wellcome Centre.

Gemma Lewis

Dr Gemma Lewis is a psychiatric epidemiologist in the Division of Psychiatry at the UCL Faculty of Brain Sciences. Her research focuses on the causes, treatment and prevention of depression and anxiety. She also investigates self-harm and suicidality, which often occur at the same time as depression and anxiety. Most people experience these mental health problems for the first time during adolescence and much of her research focuses on children and young people.

How did you develop an interest in researching mental illness in young people?

During my psychology undergraduate degree at Cardiff University, I became interested in developmental psychology, particularly in how genes and the family environment influence mental health. I did my PhD in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Section in the Division of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences at Cardiff University. I investigated family and genetic influences on child and adolescent depression. I am particularly interested in identifying modifiable causes which can be targeted in large-scale public health interventions to prevent depression and anxiety.

Your research focuses on the prevention of mental illness in young people. What warning signs can adults look for when identifying mental illness?

My main interest is in preventing mental health problems before they begin (primary prevention). This would involve reducing young people’s exposure to the risk factors that cause future mental health problems. We need to improve our knowledge of the modifiable risk factors which cause depression and anxiety. Candidates include exposure to parental mental illness; bullying, abuse, and victimisation; poverty; inequalities; and school pressures. 

What is the aim of the Wellcome mental health programme on which you’ll be working?

The Wellcome Active Ingredients programme aims to look at mental health science through a new lens: that of the ‘active ingredients’ of interventions that work. The Active Ingredient our team is investigating is: promoting inclusivity and acceptance of diverse sexual and gender identities. We will focus on how inclusivity and acceptance can be improved using interventions delivered in secondary schools. Our team consists of researchers from the Division of Psychiatry, LGBTQ+ young people with lived experience of depression and anxiety from the McPin Foundation, and secondary school teachers.

How do you hope your research will make a difference?

One of our aims is to co-produce (with adolescents and teachers) an intervention toolkit for schools. This toolkit will list interventions which have succeeded in creating positive and inclusive school environments for LGTQ+ young people, to reduce their risk of mental health problems in the future. We hope that our intervention toolkit will encourage policy makers to provide schools with the resources they need to implement these interventions.

What are your future goals in this field?

There is evidence that rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide are rising in young people. We urgently need innovative ways of reducing the rising burden of these mental health problems. Most adolescents with depression, self-harm or suicidal feelings never seek treatment. Those who do often face long waiting-lists, as child and adolescent mental health services are overburdened. If we could prevent the onset of these mental health problems in the general population, it would reduce their rising incidence and alleviate the pressure on clinical services.