UCL Institute of Mental Health


Meet Dr Vanessa Putz

Dr Vanessa Putz is Programme Co-Director of the UCL Postgraduate Diploma in Child and Adolescent Psychology and Neuroscience in Practice.

Dr Vanessa Putz

Can you tell us about your background and what attracted you to the area of young people’s mental health?

As a trained developmental neuroscientist, my interest has always been focused on understanding the conditions under which children can thrive, as well as why certain adverse conditions put them at greater risk for mental health conditions.

Given that more than half of all mental health conditions are established by age 14, it is crucial to understand the risk factors during this period of life to gain insight into mental health across the lifespan. That's why I have dedicated my career to studying the neural mechanisms that underlie changes in behaviour and social cognition in young people who have experienced childhood adversity.

How can neuroscience help us better understand mental health conditions?

Neuroscience can help us better understand mental health conditions by identifying underlying causes and contributing factors to mental health conditions and providing some objectivity in what is otherwise a very subjective experience.

Brain imaging, for example, has allowed us to visualise functional differences in brain activity in individuals suffering from mental health conditions which in turn has advanced our understanding of the underlying causes.

Neuroscience’s quest for the identification of biomarkers for mental health conditions also holds great potential for pre-emptive and individualised interventions. As with all disciplines though, neuroscience is one piece of the puzzle and must be integrated in a holistic understanding of mental health that includes systemic and subjective accounts.

What do you think are some of the main challenges in understanding and treating mental health conditions? How can research help overcome these challenges?

One main challenge in understanding mental health conditions is the complexity both of human lives and the brain itself. So, we are often faced with scenarios where individuals experience very similar (e.g. physical abuse) events in their lives but the mental health outcomes are vastly different (e.g. one young person develops anxiety and the other does not).

This phenomenon is called multi-finality and is common in developmental science. Research can address this by applying multiple perspectives to mental health questions and considering the young person as part of a complex system where many elements can influence outcomes (e.g. cultural factors or access to support).

In terms of treating mental health conditions, access to care remains a significant challenge – with young people often having to wait many months to receive care and support – as well as variability in how young people respond to treatment. Research can help to address these challenges by both increasing our understanding of mental health conditions as well as advancing more personalised and targeted interventions.

You lead the PG Diploma programme in Child and Adolescent Psychology and Neuroscience in Practice (CAPNiP). Can you tell us more about this?

Yes, I lead the PG Dip Child and Adolescent Psychology and Neuroscience in Practice (CAPNiP) together with Dr Jodie Rawlings who is the clinical lead on the course.

This is a novel distance learning course by UCL and the Anna Freud Centre which provides professionals who work with young people (for example social workers, teachers, early years staff and charity staff) with a solid foundation in child mental health, psychopathology and relevant neuroscience to apply to their practice.

The course intentionally brings together multiple perspectives in understanding emotional development and the role of relationships and the systems around a child or young person. There is a particular emphasis on the impact of trauma and adversity, and how such experiences can impact children, with two modules entirely dedicated to the effects of trauma and trauma informed practice.

We have a group of young people with lived experiences on the team who both consult as well as produce content for the course, which is key in truly understanding the factors that shape one’s experiences with mental health and treatment.

Jodie and I are very excited to welcome our first students this year in September and have built a course that honours and connects the traditional knowledge that is held by, for example, child psychoanalysts as much as the more recent disciplines like neuroscience. We integrate these perspectives and apply them to 21st century questions, like how do climate change, poverty, migration and coming of age in a digital world impact young people’s mental health? Applications are currently still open but will close on 30 June.

What working achievement are you most proud of?

A few years ago, I collaborated with valued colleagues to develop a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) titled 'Childhood Adversity: The Impact of Childhood Maltreatment on Mental Health' on the FutureLearn platform.

This free course was an opportunity for us to share our academic and clinical knowledge of the effects of maltreatment and adversity on child development with a wider audience outside the academic community. Along with my students, I designed a course that highlights the significance of multiple perspectives in child development, incorporating the insights of an educator, neuroscientist and clinician.

I'm proud of this accomplishment because I believe that the democratisation of knowledge and public outreach are crucial. To date, our course has reached almost 30,000 learners from the general public, who have rated it five stars. This response demonstrates the importance of making scientific information accessible to those who may not have access to it through traditional channels. As a scientist, it's essential to share knowledge outside of the academic sphere and work towards developing effective strategies that help bridge the gap between science and the general public.

Why would you recommend UCL as a place to study mental health?

To me, the answer to this question is collaborative spirit and expertise. This is my tenth year as a staff member at UCL and it never ceases to amaze me just how much expertise there is in the domain of psychology and mental health and the generosity with which colleagues share their knowledge with both myself and my students.

In the development of the PG DiP for example, we had to knock on many doors of very busy people to give lectures and podcasts and every time the door flings open with a resounding ‘yes, count me in’. This level of collegiality is rare and also embedded in a strong sense that students are partners who get a seat at the table of their educational experience. Students can also often realise their ideas in student and student-staff projects.

As a field of study, UCL has ranked for many years in the top 10 for psychology and neuroscience and made it to the top spot in the UK this year for research power in psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience (REF 2021). It is therefore unsurprising that it happens frequently that my students and I read a research paper from a world-leading expert and I say ‘they’ve sat here in this very same class several years before you!”. Similarly, research- and practice-based education is front and centre so students are taught by clinicians who just walked out of a family therapy session and so you work with true experts at UCL.