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Setting A Life Compass For Resilience

Setting A Life Compass For Resilience

Mental Illness

SETTING A LIFE COMPASS FOR RESILIENCE
DR JUSTINE GATT

In a study led by Dr Justine Gatt, researchers at NeuRA are looking at the structure and function of the brain as well as genetics to better understand mental health and wellbeing in adults. This study aims to understand why some people are more resilient to stress than others, and to identify the best ways to help Australians build resilience.

Dr Gatt says resilience plays an important part in everyday mental health and wellbeing and that building resilience is important to help protect against the development of mental health problems throughout life.

“We know that everybody experiences some form of stress in their life – whether it is a major traumatic event such as the death of a loved one, or ongoing daily stresses such as relationship conflict or work demands,”
says Dr Gatt.

“However, not everybody who experiences these stressful life experiences goes on to develop mental health problems. Some people are resilient.” Over the last 30 years life has become a lot faster. Access to the internet and mobile phones mean people are more ‘switched on’ than ever. Daily pressures from work, relationships, and managing finances are just some issues faced by Australians.

“For many, these stressors can lead to something more serious such as anxiety and depression. Understanding and developing resilience is key to wellbeing,” says Dr Gatt.

“What we’re looking to identify is how people who may be more or less resilient differ in terms of their brain structure and function over time, and how genetics and environment modulate these processes.”

Dr Gatt is currently using data collected from twins to understand the processes of wellbeing and resilience in the brain and how genetics and environment modulate these processes. The original twin study called TWIN-E was initiated in 2009 and involved the collection of various genetic, neurocognitive, EEG and MRI brain imaging measures in over 1,600 healthy adult twins across Australia.

Over the coming year, Dr Gatt will retest these twins for changes in their brain over time. In this project, Dr Gatt and her team will recontact the twins to complete the neurocognitive and MRI imaging testing components again after ten years, and then again after 12 years. The aim of the project is to map the process of resilience and wellbeing onto changes in the brain over time and to identify how our genes and life experiences may modulate these long-term processes. In particular, they are interested in identifying whether there are specific genes that may be associated with increased resilience or a person’s sensitivity to their environment. Both positive and negative life experiences are important to consider.

To date, Dr Gatt and colleagues have developed and validated a questionnaire to measure wellbeing called COMPAS-W. This scale contains 26 items and has demonstrated reliability in adults, and in adolescents as young as 12 years of age across six countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, the United Kingdom and South Africa). Dr Gatt and her team have established that wellbeing is 48 per cent heritable, by using the COMPAS-W scale in the twin sample.

This means that both genetics and environment play a key role in mental wellbeing. The team hope this scale may also guide future work in developing and testing a set of navigation tools that build wellbeing and resilience to stress in the community.

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