Associate Professor Angélique Cramer joined the Centre for Urban Mental Health in January. Among other things, she will develop a complex systems framework for urban mental health. This framework will be utilized to help develop ‘an online supermarket of small, accessible, personalized interventions for vulnerable Europeans’.
With her work, Cramer builds on insights gained by others from the Centre for Urban Mental Health. Cramer: ‘Junus van der Wal and colleagues showed that we should perceive mental health as a complex system where not only characteristics of the individual are relevant, but also those of the direct environment and society at large. This means that in search of effective interventions, we should not only look at someone’s resilience or tendency to ruminate but also at characteristics of their neighborhood, such as possible noise pollution or the level of social cohesion. And at a societal level, factors such as the social welfare system in a country or global transitions such as war and climate change come into play.’
Low social cohesion
In her research, Cramer will dive into the literature to assess what this complex dynamical system for urban mental health looks like and which factors are most relevant. Subsequently, she will further fine-tune the model based on empirical data collected within the project.
Formulating and testing this complex dynamical framework for urban mental health are the first steps in an expansive EU Horizon project called ReConnected. In it, research teams from several European universities collaborate under the coordination of associate professor in clinical psychology at the VU, Annet Kleiboer.
In five years from now, the project will result in an online platform where Europeans at risk for developing mental health problems can turn to for help. Cramer: ‘Part of these interventions will be personalized, so for each individual seeking help, we assess which factors from the general network for mental health are most relevant. For a fictional person called Peter, who is very sensitive to stress and lives in a neighborhood with low social cohesion, it might for example result in the advice to participate in a neighborhood project.’
Cramer appreciates the fact that this personalized approach allows for diversity in the treatment and prevention of psychological problems. ‘Any practitioner knows: if you see one hundred people with a depression, there are one hundred different stories behind it.’
More broadly speaking, it is the promise of her research to contribute to the wellbeing of people who are vulnerable for psychological problems that keeps her going. ‘It is such a sad reality that even at this point in time, you’re much better off breaking your leg than being diagnosed with a depression.’ Speaking from her own experience, she knows how debilitating psychological problems can be. ‘I’ve experienced a severe burn-out and know how dark it can get, how much impact it has on all aspects of life. If we, as a society, would invest a small fraction of the attention and funding we have for medical conditions to mental healthcare, we would be in a much better place in terms of the available interventions. I am not a practitioner, so in that way, I have nothing to offer. But as a scientist, I do feel I can contribute to improving the lives of people who suffer and that’s a big driving force.’