Mental Health and Wellbeing in Ireland

Posted: 20 May, 2020

In this time of crisis when communities stand together by remaining apart, it is imperative to acknowledge the stress our current living conditions can have on our mental health. Whether battling COVID-19 on the front line, working from home, caring for family members, newly unemployed and worried for an uncertain future, or cocooning from society, we all face our own battle to stay positive and adjust to new circumstances of an extended duration. As Ireland’s research community comes together to tackle the virus head on, we draw attention now, during Mental Health Awareness Week, to the experts among us who are researching the best way to tackle the more insidious threats to our wellbeing – mental illness and psychological strain.

The Irish Research Council has spent two decades investing public funds into research in all disciplines across Ireland’s higher education system, including mental health research. Here are some examples of studies now underway in this area.

Cadhla McDonnell, a sociology researcher in Trinity College Dublin, is examining the factors that shape wellbeing in one-parent families in Ireland. This project is in collaboration with One Family, Ireland’s leading organisation for people parenting alone and their children. The project investigates ways to protect lone parents and their children against the harmful effects of chronic stress on mental health and wellbeing. Using longitudinal data from a study of 18,000 Irish children and their families, the study aims to run an in-depth statistical analysis of the factors that shape mental health and wellbeing. A further 100 lone parents will participate in an 8-week intervention promoting self-esteem, self-efficacy, and social support, to determine if this can buffer against poor mental health outcomes for them and their children. With one-parent families accounting for a growing share of Irish families with children (over 1 in 4 in the 2016 census), it is hoped that this study will greatly help to facilitate the development of effective policies and services to promote positive mental health and wellbeing among this potentially at-risk population. This research is supported by a CAROLINE postdoctoral fellowship (an IRC and European Commission co-fund).

In recent months, we have all heard of the role and work of epidemiology – or the study of the determinants and the distribution of health-related states or events – as it relates to COVID-19. However, Dr Mary Clarke in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland is interested in epidemiology as it relates to mental health. To date, a great deal of research has looked at the genetic aspect of mental illness; Dr Clarke’s research explores the impact of environmental factors in early life. While factors such as exposure to trauma or adverse life events can be measured using established techniques, her work seeks to examine a much broader range of environmental factors that could increase risk for mental illness in later life. Knowing from neuroscience that the timing and length of the exposure on the developing brain of the child is important in terms of increasing later susceptibility to mental illness, this type of data is a primary focus of the team. The hope is that, with greater tools available to identify those at risk of mental health issues in later life, early intervention care can be offered to protect and possibly prevent a decline in mental wellbeing. Dr Clarke’s collaborative and interdisciplinary project is funded by a COALESCE award from the IRC.

Does increased physical activity increase adolescent wellbeing? This is the question Aileen O’Loughlin from the Institute of Technology Carlow is hoping to answer, with the help of the GAA. Through her research funded by the IRC’s Employment-Based Postgraduate Programme, Aileen is hoping to understand the barriers and facilitators to physical activity in junior cycle students and use the knowledge gained to complement and assist interventions like the GAA’s “Project Floodlight”. This project supports schools in developing a coherent approach to physical education and opportunities for children and young people to engage in physical activity, exercise and sports before, during and after school. Wellbeing is a multi-dimensional idea that assesses the positive aspects of a person’s life, such as positive emotions, mental health, and life satisfaction. Early adolescence is a critical time in the development of positive wellbeing, and it is also the time where the greatest drop-off in physical activity can be seen. If this trend can be overcome through wellbeing workshops and physical-based activities, this research could possibly help identify ways that adolescents can create a more positive self-image and increase their fitness.

“Sheds for Life” is a community-based health promotion programme aimed at supporting the physical, mental and social wellbeing of men’s sheds members. Developed in 2016 by the hugely successful Men’s Shed Association, this programme offers another level of support for the mental wellbeing of men in Ireland. Aisling McGrath from the Waterford Institute of Technology is working with Irish Men’s Sheds to evaluate the scalability of this programme through the application of implementation science. This form of research has developed to address a gap in research and lack of practical guidance that prevents sound evidence-based interventions being translated into practice. The hope is that, by engaging with the Irish Men’s Sheds Association, the “Shedders” themselves and other health-related partner organisations, the widespread scale-up of “Sheds for Life” can flourish and avoid the unfortunate pitfalls that community-based initiatives can often face. This project is supported by the IRC’s Employment-Based Postgraduate Programme.

Mental Health Awareness Week is a good time for us all to pause and to reflect on our wellbeing. If you are experiencing distress, do avail of the supports available through your institution, workplace, community, and/or relevant helplines (such as those listed on as well as family and friends. The USI webpage on Minding your mental health during COVID-19 offers advice to students and includes links to further resources. Remember: you are more than your research. Mind yourselves.

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