Professor Essi Viding is a developmental psychologist with training in cognitive neuroscience and behavioural genetic approaches to mental health research.
Can you tell us about your background and what attracted you to the area of children and young people’s mental health?
I am a developmental psychologist with training in cognitive neuroscience and behavioural genetic approaches to mental health research. I currently chair UCL’s Children and Young People’s Mental Health Strategy Working Group and I co-direct the Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit at UCL.
I was first attracted to research with children and young people after a research assistant role that involved testing adults with Antisocial Personality Disorder.
It was clear to me that the pathways to adult disorder varied greatly between individuals, but that in most cases there had been clear signs of difficulties from childhood onwards. This got me fascinated about developmental precursors to adult problems and how these varied between different individuals.
Why is mental health such an important focus of research in today’s society?
Mental health problems often result in great distress to the individual and those around them. Poor mental health can impact social relationships, educational opportunities, employment, and physical health and represents a significant societal economic burden.
This is why we should invest in research and treatment of mental health problems. Prevention and early intervention during childhood and adolescence are a critical part of this endeavour and decision makers are waking up to this fact.
Because we are more willing to talk about mental health in today’s society than we have been in the past, it may seem that mental health research is now awash with funding. However, we are still playing catch up compared to funding invested in many physical health conditions.
10 years ago the research spend per person for mental health was less than 1% of that spent for cancer. Although things have improved a little, there is still a long way to go.
To what extent do you think mental health disorders among children and young people are on the rise, and why might this be?
There is no doubt that surveys from the past few decades report increases in mental health symptoms among children and young people. What is harder to tell is how much this reflects greater awareness and recognition of mental health problems, as well as greater willingness to admit to mental distress among those surveyed, or whether what we see are genuine increases in rates of mental health problems. Social media use gets linked with mental health of children and young people, but the evidence for its role is far from clear.
The Covid pandemic no doubt contributed to poorer mental health for some children and young people and we need to examine how long lasting the effects of the pandemic will be. The impact of the pandemic has also not been the same for everybody. Some children and young people’s mental health improved during the pandemic, presumably as they experienced less social and academic pressures associated with school.
What do you think are some of the main challenges in understanding and treating mental health disorders among young people? How can research help overcome these challenges?
I think the main challenges are heterogeneity and complexity. In plain English, there are a number of different pathways for developing mental health disorders, even for people who get the same diagnosis
Furthermore, mental health disorders are multi-factorial. This means that there is no single cause, and we face the challenging task of trying to understand how a multitude of genetic and environmental influences shape brain development over time, in ways that confer either risk or resilience to mental health disorders.
UCL is well positioned to tackle this complexity with its expertise in neuroscience, social sciences, population health, genetics, AI and the arts.
How can neuroscience help us better understand mental health?
The way we think and the way we experience the world around us fundamentally shapes our social relationships and our wellbeing. We cannot understand behaviour and social interactions without understanding the brain.
Most talking therapies for mental health disorders focus on changing thought patterns and pharmacological treatments target particular neurotransmitters. Yet our understanding of how either talking therapies or pharmacological interventions work is still relatively rudimentary. In particular, we need to get better at figuring out what is the right intervention for a particular individual.
New studies investigating neural computations that underlie different thought patterns, or how people with different genotypes may have different brain responses to medications are on the way at UCL. Such research will help us better understand what works best for different people.
Neuroscientists at UCL are increasingly working with social scientists and people with lived experience to ensure their work is designed, framed and translated in ways that achieves real life impact.
This ethos is incorporated centrally into our capacity building. For example, UCL Wellcome Mental Health PhD programme requires students to work with supervisors across different disciplines and embeds co-production with lived experience researchers a core component of the training.
More generally, how do you think genetics and environment interact when it comes to mental health?
Different types of gene-environment interplay are important for increasing (and reducing) mental health risk.
Gene-environment correlation refers to the fact that individuals’ social environments are correlated with their genetic propensities. For example, children with difficult temperaments evoke more negative reactions in their parents and peers than those with easy temperaments.
Gene-environment interaction refers to differential sensitivity to risk and protective environments, depending on the genotype. Bad things will not harm everyone equally and good opportunities will not benefit everyone to the same extent.
To what extent can early intervention help overcome mental health disorders in young people?
There is good evidence that early intervention helps, but it is not the single silver bullet. Just like we need to take care of physical health throughout our lives, we must invest in looking after children and young people’s mental health beyond the early years. We might think of it as an approach that involves an initial vaccination and then booster shots over the years.
Can you describe your current research into children and young people’s mental health?
I am currently leading two projects. The first focuses on developing a new, school-based intervention for young people who have elevated levels of mental health symptoms, but who are not yet receiving mental health services.
We are testing whether a combination of cognitive and social skills training will lead to improved mental health. The second project tests whether we can train emotion perception in ways that reduces hostile biases and increases prosocial behaviour in boys with disruptive behaviour disorders. Both projects combine different methods and involve a host of talented UCL and external colleagues.
What working achievement are you most proud of?
I am proud of the research group that I, together with my colleague Professor Eamon McCrory, have set up. Our work has advanced the evidence base of disruptive behaviour disorders and childhood adversity and has utilised a number of different methods to do so. We have trained a host of excellent researchers who have gone to establish their own, successful groups at great universities. This is really heartening to me, as no research field can survive without outstanding early career researchers who become independent researchers that do outstanding work.
Why would you recommend UCL as a place to study children and young people’s mental health?
I do not think there is anywhere else in the world with such exciting, outstanding cross-disciplinary work in children and young people’s mental health – conducted by extraordinary scientists who are not only absolutely the best in the world in what they do, but are also invariably nice, helpful and collegiate. That is hard to beat.