To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science and International Women's Day, we caught up with Professor Viding to ask her about her research, her advice for women who want to follow a career in scientific research and her goals for the future.
Can you tell us about your interest in children and young people’s mental health and why you think this is an important area to study?
Mental health problems rarely arise out of the blue in adulthood, but instead have developmental origins. Multiple factors, both biological and social, can make people vulnerable to, or protect them from developing mental health problems. These factors are often intricately connected and I would argue that it is not possible to achieve a good understanding of how and why mental health problems emerge, without taking a developmental approach.
Your specific area of study has to do with the origins of antisocial behaviour. What are the neurocognitive consequences of childhood maltreatment and how significantly does this contribute to antisocial behaviour?
Childhood maltreatment is one known risk factor for development of antisocial behaviour. Children who live in environments characterised by maltreatment learn to adapt to these environments. They may show reactive aggression, which can be protective in situations of real threat, but will lead to social difficulties in other settings. Not all children who have experienced maltreatment develop antisocial behaviour, so although this is a prominent risk factor, current research suggests that it may be particularly potent for individuals who also have other risk factors. These may include genetic vulnerability and lack of social support.
As we know COVID-19 is having a devastating effect on the childhoods of children and young people across the country – what are some of the challenges some children are facing?
Several factors relevant for mental health are important to consider in this context. These include:
- Isolation and loneliness, which may increase emotional problems.
- Disruption to routine, which can lead to less organised and unpredictable environments, sleep disturbance, and reduced physical activity - all of which can have an impact on mental health.
- Family stress, which can affect the ability of adults to support and meet the needs of children and young people.
- Domestic violence and maltreatment are at the extreme end of parental dysfunction and we know these have increased during the pandemic.
- Reduction in support networks, including school and community networks and access to services that support mental health and provide safeguarding. This is particularly worrying in the case of children who had substantial prior needs before pandemic.
- Bereavement, which during the pandemic is more likely to be traumatic.
The overall effect of these stressors and reduction in support is likely to be particularly pertinent for children and adolescents who are at critical stages of developing the social and cognitive competencies that provide the foundation for current and later mental health. The most vulnerable (e.g. BAME, LGBTQ+, and looked after children and young people) are likely to be most affected, yet may face particular challenges in accessing and engaging with support during the pandemic.
What needs to be done to try and avert some of the lasting consequences the pandemic is having on children and young people?
We need to invest in services, both those that are directly addressing mental health needs, as well as those that are targeted to the basic needs of ensuring that children are safe, warm and fed. These might include access to therapies via online platforms and facilitated peer support, as well as active social care initiatives aimed at meeting basic needs, which reduce stressors for families. The latter may seem obvious, but it is extraordinary to remember that if it was not for Marcus Rashford, children would have gone hungry during this pandemic.
In 2019 UCL launched the Institute of Mental Health which brings together cross-disciplinary research from across the university. Can you tell us about your involvement in the Institute of Mental Health and the significance of its development?
The IoMH is led by Professor Anthony David. I am one of the board members of the IoMH, together with many excellent academics across UCL, representing different areas of expertise in mental health. The purpose of the IoMH is to bring together researchers across the UCL to conduct innovative, cross-disciplinary research.
You have recently launched a new website ‘Children and Young People's Mental Health’ which showcases UCL’s state-of-the-art methods to study causes and risk factors related to mental health problems. Can you tell us what users can discover and how you plan to develop this field of research?
The users will find information about children and young people's mental health research at UCL, about the education that UCL offers in this area, about policy initiatives and about our clinical collaborations. I am hoping that the website will serve people outside UCL who are interested in knowing what we do, as well as academics within UCL, so that they can better connect with each other. I am hoping that the website is part of a broader range of initiatives that will catalyse novel, cross-disciplinary projects across UCL.
Do you have any skills or talents that most people don’t know about?
I am very good at baking sourdough bread. Alongside many other people who have gone through several lockdowns.
Who is someone you admire, and why?
Uta Frith has been a real role model to me. She is an extraordinary scientific mind. She has also been an outstanding example of what you can achieve if you give people time, listen to them, and encourage generosity, curiosity, and boldness.
What do you think are the best skills that you bring to your job?
This is always a difficult one to answer about yourself. I would like to think that my interdisciplinary training enables me to see the big picture and work with people from different backgrounds. And I hope I have managed to emulate some of Uta Frith’s ‘spirit’ in helping people work together.
What’s a goal you have for yourself that you want to accomplish in the next year?
I want to see the UCL children and young people's mental heatlh community grow from strength to strength, with new collaborations and interesting research directions forming. I am particularly hoping that we will get ‘buy in’ from early career researchers, who will be vital in achieving a step change in children and young people's mental heatlh research.