Evidence-based guidelines for mental health data science

Our Aim

To develop a checklist (set of guidelines) for best practice in mental health data science research, which would guide the future launch of a Mental Health Data Network.


Professor Sue Fletcher-Watson introduces the research 

Video Transcript


Principal Investigator: Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson
Contact Person: Dr Elizabeth Kirkham


Our ultimate goal

The ultimate goal of this MRC funded project is to develop a data science platform where every NHS patient is a research participant. However, to do this, the researchers must make sure that the community are informed, involved and confident in the endeavour.

Public opinion on data sharing

Our pilot data (see below) suggests many people see value in their data being shared for research, but more work needs to be done before a UK wide Mental Health Data network could be launched.  In particular, we need to understand any issues specific to mental health data.

Graph (bar chart) describing public opinion of data sharing

Partnerships and diversity

An important aspect of this will be ensuring that the platform is developed in partnership with stakeholders, including people with experience of mental health conditions, their family and supporters; practitioners in clinical, social care and education services, and charity partners.

A key challenge in this process will be how to capture the diverse range of opinion between stakeholder groups (including people with different diagnoses). If we want to develop coherent guidelines, we need to find a way to synthesise a range of perspectives.


Research planned

Our aim is to gather representative data on public attitudes to data linkage and convert it into a series of best practice guidelines for data science research.

Survey on computer screen1. An Online Survey

This survey was aimed at anyone who had experience of using the NHS.

By collecting details about most recent/regular NHS contact, researchers will be able to compare the attitudes of different groups towards data linkage (e.g. those who mostly see their doctor about diabetes versus depression).

[NB: The survey is now closed]

2. Interviews

These will take place both face-to-face and via social media. They will include people with both current and previous experience of mental health conditions and will provide richer, in-depth information about attitudes to data sharing.

3. UK-wide Delphi Study

The aim of this activity is to generate a set of guidelines for mental health data science research.

  • Participants will be “experts by experience” from across the UK, i.e. patients with experience of service use and research participation.
  • Collaboration will take place via an online platform, where researchers will share their draft guidelines and invite participants to critique, modify, and merge them.
  • Checklist with boxes on paperThe above process will be repeated several times until a final set of guidelines is agreed upon.

This method is an established technique for systematically converting collective, tacit knowledge into concrete guidelines.

4. Final version of guidelines

The final version of the guidelines will be published as a concise checklist for best practice in mental health data science. We will also disseminate our findings to the public via short online animations and Science Festival events.


Stakeholder Advisory Group

The Edinburgh MRC Pathfinder projects are overseen by a Stakeholder Advisory Group, a gathering of individuals from the mental health community, which meets formally twice per year.

The first meeting, held in October 2018, addressed topics such as the aims of the project and the terminology that should be used when discussing mental illness. In addition, the stakeholders provided feedback on a draft version of the data sharing survey. This feedback was incorporated into the survey prior to its release to the general public. 


        Logos for the partners that are on our Stakeholder Advisory Group

[Organisations represented include VOX Scotland, Support in Mind Scotland, Young Scot, SAMH, Bipolar Scotland, SeeMe, Lanarkshire Links, and University of Glasgow]

Why us? 

The staff involved in this project have track records of high-quality participatory research combined with effective public engagement. In setting up this project they’ve capitalised on existing links and forged new connections. They work with third sector organisations including Scottish Autism and the Scottish Recovery Consortium, patient-led groups including Bipolar Scotland and VOX Scotland, and professional bodies such as NHS Scotland's Mental Health Network.

Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson has a background in participatory research, especially in the area of autism.
Read her thoughts on working with an Autistic mentor

Dr Stella Chan leads Project Soothe, a citizen science initiative which invites members of the public from around the world to submit images which they find soothing. The project seeks to learn more about the ways in which people self soothe, whilst generating a bank of images for use in future research studies. 


Useful Links


Related Podcast / Videos


Early Autism Research
Sue Fletcher-Watson
Autism Matters Podcast

Photo of Sue Fletcher-Watson


Highlights from Resilience Ceilidh
(Feb 2018)


An introduction to Project Soothe