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University of Ulster researchers revealed fresh evidence of the depth of Northern Ireland’s mental health problems today at the official launch of a major research initiative at Magee campus.

With depression already recognised as the most common reason for people to visit their GPs here, a study by the new Bamford Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing found our rates of mental health disorders were among the highest in a survey of 17 regions and countries.

It also reported a wide disparity in how long it takes people to seek professional help.  Professor Brendan Bunting, Centre Director, warned that people with anxiety issues often suffer in silence too long, some delaying more than 20 years before seeking help.

The Centre, which was officially launched by Professor Norman Black, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation), University of Ulster, opens a new chapter in Ulster’s internationally-recognised research into mental health.

Located in Aberfoyle House, a large villa in the heart of the campus, the Centre is expected to add substantially to the health-skills base of the North West. It is named after the late Professor David Bamford, of the University of Ulster, who made outstanding contributions to academic and policy developments in the Centre’s specialist areas. His widow, Mrs Heather Bamford, and son, Jonathan, were present for the launch, which took place in the historic Great Hall, Magee.

Mr Andrew McCormick, Permanent Secretary, Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, attended the ceremony. The guests included senior academics, health practitioners and managers, policy-makers, students and support groups.

Magee researchers already have an international reputation in mental health.  Their work helps shape government policies and provides a wealth of statistics and data that influence therapeutic approaches and a continuous worldwide debate on mental health issues.

Professor Bunting and senior Centre colleagues are members of the World Mental Health Consortium (WMHC), a select band of some 30 research groups in universities and institutes that share exclusive data and conduct joint projects. Among their partners is the celebrated Harvard Institute of Mental Health.

The Centre co-ordinates the work of 40 academic and post-graduate students.  Studies currently under way include the economic impact of depression, patterns of post-traumatic stress, incidence of suicide and factors in self-harming.

The Centre will develop new fields of joint study with academic colleagues who work across a wide range of disciplines on the University’s four campuses. Its formation will boost the Centre’s prospects of winning outside research funding that could lead to more research posts and further post-graduate training in areas such as clinical work, therapies and clinical trials.

Professor Black said the decision to bring researchers together from a range of disciplines was recognition of the importance of mental health and wellbeing to the personal, social and economic fabric of society.

“In this Centre we now have in place an opportunity to develop further strengths in a number of areas, including computational science, clinical methodology, nursing, social work and psychology,” he said.

“This builds on the excellent research that has been produced over a number of years and is an indication of the research strengths on the Magee campus, in association with colleagues on other campuses, and through numerous national and international collaborations.”

Professor Deirdre Heenan, Acting Provost, Magee and Dean of Academic Development, said that as a component of the planned Institute of Health and Wellbeing, the Centre was an important step in the University’s expansion plans for Magee.

“Pioneering research is a hallmark of Magee and the Centre already has the benefit of a world standard reputation, earned by academics who are experts in its core areas,” she said.

“As well as promoting wider understanding of mental and general healthcare issues, the Centre will also, very importantly, enhance the North West’s health base skills at many levels, including treatment, data analysis, research and development.”

Professor Hugh McKenna, Dean of the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, said: “The Centre is very conscious of the enormous benefits that must evolve from strong partnerships with local health trusts, such as the Western Health and Social Care Trust, voluntary organisations like the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health, and also the Research and Development Division of the Public Health Agency.

“Collaborative working is vital to formulation of evidence-based practice. Undertaking quality research without involving patients and their carers is no longer an option.  Their experience is a core ingredient of quality research.

“Service users should be partners with researchers in identifying issues that need investigating and in carrying out the research.”

Professor Bunting, commenting on the recently completed epidemiological study by members of the Centre, said: “The findings reveal the extent of the suffering caused by mental health problems in our population and highlight the importance of finding ways in which we can enhance the mental resources within our society.”

The international comparative survey was part of the World Mental Health Initiative and involved detailed interviews with more than 4,300 members of the public in Northern Ireland. One of its principal findings was that in any one year, around one in four people here show symptoms that could be related to one or more mental health conditions.

Professor Bunting said: “The results also indicated that while access to services was high, nevertheless only 40% of those with a disorder sought treatment in any given year.

“People with depression were among the most likely to seek treatment early, waiting on average a year, although over 25% of individuals in this category waited 10 years or more before seeking treatment. However, those with anxiety disorders waited on average over 20 years before asking for help. Individuals with substance disorders waited on average 15 years.”