MARCH: Social, Cultural and Community Assets for Mental Health

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Behavioural Science and Health


The 'MARCH' Network proposes that Assets for Resilient Communities lie at the heart of Mental Health (M-ARC-H) and is dedicated to advancing research into the impact of these assets in enhancing public mental health and wellbeing, preventing mental illness and supporting those living with mental health conditions. Specifically, it will advance our understanding of the impact of social, cultural and community assets including the arts, culture, heritage, libraries, parks, community gardens, allotments, leisure centres, volunteer associations, social clubs and community groups, of which there are an anticipated 1 million in the UK. The network will bring together a Disciplinary Expert Group of researchers with a Policy Group of major national policy bodies, a Patient Public Involvement Group of national mental health charities, and a Community Engagement Group of national organisations. Across three years, our network will unite research with policy and practice to tackle critical questions of research priorities, methods, and implementation in this field; understand and resolve barriers to mobilising community assets; and provide training and support to the next generation of researchers.

Specifically, our network will address questions organised in two core work streams (WS):
WS1. Cross-disciplinary research and challenges: (a) What evidence is there, from a cross-disciplinary perspective, for how and why community assets impact on public health and wellbeing and the lives of those living with mental health problems, and where are the gaps for future research? (b) How can we use a cross-disciplinary approach to provide meaningful data to different stakeholders and users?

WS2. Equity of engagement and access innovation: (a) Who amongst the UK population, demographically and geographically, currently engages with these programmes and how does participation vary dependent on mental health? (b) What are the current barriers and enablers to engagement at an individual, organisational and policy level and how can we develop innovative approaches to enhance engagement, especially amongst the vulnerable?

This research work will be complemented by a rich portfolio of impact, engagement and training activities (see 'Impact Summary').

This network aligns with strategic priorities of the AHRC and ESRC as well as having a secondary relevance to the priorities of the MRC (through its consideration of the role of community assets and social prescribing to support medical approaches to mental health), NERC (through its exploration of the impact of green spaces) and EPSRC (through its focus on the opportunities provided by technology for driving research forwards). It has also been designed in response to the Network Plus Research Agenda. In addition to the objectives already discussed in the prior Je-S section, it is responsive to many of the mental health challenges cited in the agenda. For example, the call specification noted that only 25% of people with mental health problems receive ongoing treatment. Whilst there are recognised economic and resource constraints with delivering sufficient mental health services, this Network proposes to focus on the role that existing community assets could play in providing support to a much wider range of people in the UK including those on waiting lists. As another example, the call specification raised that 70% of children and adolescents with mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at an earlier age. This Network will involve working with policy makers and community organisations to see how research could help overcome barriers to access with the aim of engaging more young people and those who are hard to reach. Overall, the network will seek to understand and support future research into how community assets could be mobilised to encourage more resilient individuals and communities with a greater understanding of and capacity for self-management of mental health.

Planned Impact

A rich suite of events and activities map onto the research in the two Work Streams including two Impact and Engagement Objectives (IEO) and an Impact Development Objective (IDO).

IEO1 will focus on connecting research with a) policy and b) practice with the aim of advancing best practice and encouraging high quality evaluations and research. In partnership with the What Works Centre for Wellbeing and Mental Health Foundation, the network will turn its four reports into policy briefings and disseminate to the Policy Group and wider policy stakeholders (IEO1a). The network will also co-host meetings with the Social Prescribing Network and NHS England, help to assess the Royal Society for Public Health community awards to celebrate best practice and develop bespoke activities with further Community Engagement Group partners (IEO1b). Our short-term aim is that by 2021, concise reports on social, cultural and community engagement and mental health are available to all major policy stakeholders and national practice organisations, with the medium-term aim that mental health begins to be included in the strategies and programmes of Community Engagement Groups, so that in the long-term the value of community assets is drawn on more to support mental health in the UK.

IEO2 will focus on advancing a) public engagement, b) stigma reduction and c) access innovation. We have a suite of programmes including a Citizen Science project planned with the BBC to raise public awareness about the importance of community assets for mental health and will explore other media opportunities utilising existing connections (IEO2a). We will work with the Community Engagement Group to look at how activities themselves such as singing, performance and art could be used to reduce stigma associated with mental illness (IEO2b). And in partnership with NESTA we will test the recommendations for access innovation with individual local community programmes using NESTA's 100-day rapid cycling process. Our short-term aim is that across the life-time of the Network, there is enhanced awareness of the impact of community assets for mental health amongst the general public, which, along with the development of more targeted access innovation programmes, will generate engagement in the medium term. In the long term, this should lead to more geographically and demographically balanced inclusion, especially by those with mental health conditions.

Finally, IDO1 is about training the next generation of researchers to advance cross-disciplinary research in close partnership with community organisations and healthcare professionals. Building on the existing 700-person Early Career Research Network for Arts, Humanities, Health and Medicine led by Fancourt we will continue to support regional networking events, online resources and a podcast series. We will also work with the Royal Society for Public Health to develop a new online training programme to support those starting their careers doing cross-disciplinary work in social, cultural and community assets and mental health. Our short-term aim is that ECRs are provided with a much stronger national structure to engage with others working on similar areas, breaking through traditional disciplinary silos, and the chance to apply for £80,000 grants to seed fund their own research. In the medium term, our aim is that ECRs are better trained and given stronger platforms to develop their research skills in partnership with community organisations, to the simultaneous benefit of the wider community sector. Long-term this should provide a connected and engaged new generation of researchers to advance work in this field, meaning that overall this Network both responds to the immediate Work Streams posed in this application and also develops research expertise especially amongst younger researchers to be able to tackle the critical Work Streams of the future.

This work is supported by £225,000 in kind from our partners.



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