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Press release: Leading experts to discuss mental health at Cambridge Festival

To what extent has the pandemic impacted teenagers’ mental health and development? Could a video game help promote mental wellbeing and reduce mental suffering? What about support for people suffering with dementia?

These questions and more are set to be explored during a series of events focussed on our mental health and the brain at the Cambridge Festival, which launches on Friday 26th March and runs until Sunday 4th April.

The Festival hosts an extensive programme of over 350 free, online events that tackle many of the critical global challenges affecting us all. Coordinated by the University of Cambridge, it features hundreds of prominent figures and experts in the world of science, current affairs and the arts, and focusses on four key themes: health, society, environment, and explore.

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the world. As societies learn to cope with physical, economic and social uncertainties, and with rising mental health issues related to stress and anxiety, there could hardly be a more apt moment for the Cambridge Festival to present a series of events related to this very topic.

According to a recent Prince’s Trust survey, one in four young people feels unable to cope with life. In Growing up insecure (3 April, 1-2pm), a panel of experts discuss their ongoing research into factors that shape the current generation’s mental health and wellbeing. The session is chaired by Dr Ahmed Hankir, Psychiatrist, Mental Health Campaigner, and author of The Wounded Healer. Speakers include:

  • Dr Duncan Astle, a Programme Leader at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, focuses on new research concerning the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health
  • Dr Jo-Anne Dillabough, a Reader in the Sociology of Youth and Global Cultures, examines the structural forces that affect learning and how COVID-19 has exacerbated structural violence, such as austerity, the impact of where we live, and the legacy of imperialism
  • Brendan Burchell, Professor in the Social Sciences at the University of Cambridge, speaks about the transition from education to work, issues around youth unemployment in the wake of COVID-19, and the need for good quality work rather than gig working
  • Anne-Laura van Harmelen, Professor of Brain, Safety and Resilience at the Institute of Education and Child Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands and senior affiliate at the Department of Psychiatry in Cambridge, discusses her work on the long-term impact of early adversity on development and on resilience, how we can build from it and develop a sense of ‘post-traumatic growth’.

In Adolescent mental health and development (3 April, 3-4pm, and then all day on 4 April), Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore discusses the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health with Chris Mann, BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. Professor Blakemore explains why teenagers feel and act the way that they do. She explores how the teenage brain changes and how COVID-19 might be impacting adolescent development and mental health. Professor Blakemore‘s recent book, Inventing Ourselves: the secret life of the teenage brain, was awarded the Royal Society Book Prize 2018 and the British Psychological Society Book Prize 2020 and was voted Hay Festival Book of the Year 2018.

Speaking ahead of the event, Professor Blakemore said: “Adolescence, which is the period of life between 10 and 24 years, is characterised by heightened sensitivity to social information and need for interaction with peers. In the past two decades, neuroscience research has shown that the human brain develops substantially during this period. Areas of the social brain undergo significant reorganisation during adolescence, which might reflect a sensitive period for adapting to the social environment.

“Public health strategies imposed to reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as lockdowns, school closures and social distancing, have removed many sources of social connection from young people’s lives. Such measures could have impact on adolescent development and mental health. However, the use of digital technologies and social media, which allow young people to connect with friends virtually, might mitigate some of the potentially harmful effects of social distancing and lockdowns.”

In a related event, psychologist Charlotte Markey tackles everything young people ever wanted to know about growing-up but might have been too shy to ask during Ask the Experts: Body Image and Growing Up Today (2 April, 5pm). During a pre-recorded video, Professor Markey answers a range of anonymous questions from young people covering what they would most like to know about growing up, any worries or concerns, how their bodies change, and how they can learn to be confident.

Could a video game help promote mental wellbeing and reduce mental suffering? In Mastering mental health through video games (27 March, 1-2pm), Professor Paul Fletcher, Consultant Psychiatrist and Bernard Wolfe Professor of Health and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, and Tameem Antoniades, Co-founder and Chief Creative Ninja at Ninja Theory, discuss the development of multi-BAFTA Award-winning videogame Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. This hugely popular videogame resulted from a multidisciplinary collaboration, involving psychiatry research and patients’ lived experiences, to create a thoroughly engaging representation of what psychosis is really like.

Professor Fletcher and Taneem also discuss how they are working together to investigate the use of videogames to treat mental ill-health. For example, pairing technology such as biofeedback systems and virtual reality with clinical neuroscience and cutting-edge game design to make previously invisible symptoms, including anxiety and fear, visible. Their hope is that videogame experiences will enable people to gain more control over symptoms of mental illness and reduce suffering.

Despite decades of research, Alzheimer’s, the major cause of dementia, still has no vaccine and no cure. In Alzheimers' Research UK East Network Public Meeting (30 March, 11am-12.45pm), Psychiatry consultant Dr Ben Underwood, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, provides an insight into the current support services for people with dementia and demonstrates how imaging technology could help with diagnosing and prognosing dementia; Professor Kieran Clarke, University of Oxford, shares how ketone could be used to increase physical performance and cognitive function; and researcher Maura Malpetti, University of Cambridge, illustrates how brain images of dementia patients helps doctors and researchers to predict the development of dementia.

In My Memory Clinic and Me (31 March, 4-5.30pm), three internationally renowned experts in the field of dementia research and consultant neurologists at The Cambridge Memory Clinic, Professor James Rowe, Dr Timothy Rittman and Dr Andrew Graham, explain what dementia is and how it affects the brain. They discuss who gets referred to a memory clinic and the path to diagnosis, what happens once a person has been diagnosed, and how attending clinic can help with understanding the diagnosis and obtaining support through, for instance, a specialist dementia nurse. Moreover, they describe the role of the memory clinic in groundbreaking research, how the collaboration between hospitals and academic institutions makes vital research possible, and how this relates to patient care.

Further related events:

  • The Talking Cure (26 March – 4 April all day) Riana Betzler (McDonnell Postdoctoral Fellow, Washington University) and Sahanika Ratnayake (PhD Candidate, Faculty of Philosophy, Cambridge University) present a series of short podcasts that explore talking therapy within traditions of psychiatry, psychotherapy, social work, and counselling. 
  • MRC CBU Science Night: Thinking about the brain (26 March – 4 April all day) A series of pre-recorded talks on topics including semantic cognition, Cochlear Implants, mental health and Parkinson’s disease; interactive brain-related games and demonstrations; videos about how the Unit’s advanced technology is used; and a chance to virtually meet the scientists.
  • Concussion in Sport: What you need to know (26 March – 4 April all day) What happens after a sports-related concussion? What are the symptoms? How can concussion be evaluated and treated promptly? NIHR Brain Injury Medtech Co-operative and its team of researchers discuss a variety of technological solutions currently used in Race Sports and Rugby to assess and treat concussion effectively.
  • Attraction Explained: The Science of How We Form Relationships (26 March, 7-8pm) Professor Viren Swami, Anglia Ruskin University, looks at how factors such as geography, appearance, personality, and similarity affect who we fall for and why.
  • Bespoke Music and Narration for Health and Wellness (27 March, 11-11.45am, and then 28 March-4 April all day) Composer, Professor Valerie Ross and cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr Abid Amir share their novel approach in co-creating and applying a collection of original music and pulse-based narration crafted to promote relaxation, health and wellness. They also discuss the outcomes of a randomised clinical trial of using this kind of approach for post-operative cardiac surgery patients.  
  • Hallucinations: Artist Film Screening and Discussion (28 March, 4-5pm) – a film screening of HALLUCINATIONS, an immersive journey into the personal experiences of two people who are living with dementia, juxtaposed with the perspective of two carers. The film reveals intimate details that convey how dementia changes perceptions – resulting in hallucinations, altered experiences of time and sense of identity. The screening is followed by a discussion between director Suki Chan and New Hall Art Collection curator Harriet Loffler.
  • The Pattern Seekers: A new theory of human invention (30 March, 1-2pm) Psychologist and world-renowned autism expert, Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen, asks why only humans can invent and explores a bold new theory that links invention with autism during a talk based on his new book. From the first musical instrument to the agricultural, industrial and digital revolutions, Baron-Cohen shows how this unique ability has driven human progress for 70,000 years. By linking one of our greatest human strengths with a condition that is so often misunderstood, he challenges us to think differently about those who think differently.

View the full programme via Many events require pre-booking, please check the events listings on the Festival website. 

Keep up to date with the Festival on social media:

Instagram @Camunifestivals | Facebook: @CambridgeFestival | Twitter: @Cambridge_Fest

The Festival sponsors and partners are AstraZeneca and RAND Europe. The Festival media partners are BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.


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