Shedding light on the complexities of mental illness

Professor Belinda Lennox is on a mission to shed light on the complexities of mental illness.

With her unwavering dedication and ground-breaking research, the Head of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry aims to dismantle the stigma surrounding psychiatric disorders and revolutionise the field of psychiatry.

Professor Lennox's journey in psychiatry began during her time at medical school.

Fuelled by a desire to address the devastating consequences of mental illness and challenge the prevailing stigma, she pursued a career as an academic psychiatrist.

Early on, she encountered the harsh realities of mental health services, observing dispiriting environments and cultural attitudes reminiscent of Victorian asylums.

Lennox believed that research held the key to progress, helping to transform understanding, education, and the development of better treatments and care.

Eventually, after years working in hospitals and struggling to get funding for her work, she decided that an academic environment would be the best way to make a difference to the lives of her patients.

Listen to the 'Futuremakers: Brain and Mental Health' podcast series, hosted by Professor Belinda Lennox:

Her early research, then at Nottingham University, involved putting patients experiencing auditory hallucinations into MRI scanners - a completely new approach at the time.

‘People who hear voices that others can’t, really are hearing them in a literal sense,’ Professor Lennox says.

‘By putting them in the scanner we could see for the first time that the parts of their brains associated with hearing sounds were lighting up,’

Her pioneering work resulted in the publication of her findings in esteemed medical journals like The Lancet.

Determined to find a larger academic environment, Lennox relocated to Cambridge and then to Oxford.

Here, she was able to collaborate with esteemed professionals, such as immunologist Angela Vincent, Emeritus Professor of Neuroimmunology, who played a pivotal role in Lennox's research on immune causes of mental illness.

One of Professor Lennox's ground-breaking discoveries centres around antibodies that cause severe, life-threatening illnesses.

Through her research, she found that these same antibodies are found in some patients with severe mental illnesses and that removing these antibodies could lead to their recovery.

These findings are now being tested in a clinical trial to establish whether this new approach could be implemented more widely.

Despite her remarkable findings, Professor Lennox has faced challenges in getting her work accepted by the healthcare system.

Psychiatry's separation from the rest of medicine and its divergence from acute medical care created barriers to new treatments and research techniques.

Professor Lennox has expressed her frustration with the current system and emphasises the need for a fundamental overhaul.

‘We need to do better,’ she asserts. ‘Mental health is not a separate entity. It's part of our overall health.’

‘We need to integrate mental and physical healthcare, ensuring that mental health is considered and included at every stage of a person's healthcare journey, and that people in mental health care settings have their illness investigated and treated using the best possible, evidence-based treatments.’

To achieve this, Lennox advocates for psychiatry to have the facilities, staffing and training needed to be able to incorporate new advances and assess and manage people with mental illness in a comprehensive way.

Currently, academic psychiatry is in a perilous state with many university medical schools no longer having dedicated Psychiatry departments, meaning fewer opportunities for clinicians to do research and less research being undertaken overall.

That is partly why, as head of one of the leading Departments of Psychiatry in the world, she is passionate about supporting the careers of the next generation of researchers. 

The first woman to take on that role at Oxford, Professor Lennox knows first-hand how challenging the career path can be.

She has four children and worked part time for 12 years whilst combining clinical and academic training.

‘I was on the slow track in terms of career progression. I produced fewer papers than other colleagues, I could not easily take the time to attend international conferences or network with other research groups.’

‘I was not competitive for research fellowships and for over a decade continued to do research whilst being employed in other roles in the NHS. My break came through a fellowship scheme that targeted female clinical academics and provided vital research time.’

‘That allowed me to establish myself. I now want to make that possible for others.’

Looking ahead, Lennox envisions a transformed mental health landscape where research, clinical practice, and policy work hand in hand.

She emphasises the need for continued investment in research and the translation of findings into practical, evidence-based interventions.

‘We have made significant strides in understanding mental illnesses, but there is still much work to be done,’ Lennox asserted.

‘By fostering collaboration between researchers, clinicians, policymakers, and individuals with lived experiences, we can drive meaningful change and improve mental health outcomes on a global scale.’

‘Oxford is an amazing place to conduct mental health research; the department is situated right in the heart of a psychiatric hospital where we can work alongside patients and clinicians, and right next to the amazing cluster of world-leading medical research facilities on the Old Road Campus,’ she says.

Professor Lennox's dedication to unravelling some of the mysteries of mental illness has earned her recognition as a trailblazer in the field of psychiatry.

Through her pioneering research and leadership, Lennox continues to challenge the status quo, working towards transforming mental health understanding, education, and care.

Her efforts serve as an inspiration to both current and upcoming generations of mental health professionals and researchers, and offers hope to patients for a future where mental illness is truly understood and treated in the most effective way possible.