'People and place' - mental health conference trip report

Dr Jennifer Ma, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health
9 May 2024

This travel grant trip report is written by the ECR Travel Grant awardee Dr Jennifer Ma, an Early Career Researcher in suicide prevention, mental health, and wellbeing research, with the Centre for Mental Health Research.

A sincere thanks to NCEPH for supporting my attendance and presentation at the 43rd Annual Society for Mental Health Research (SMHR) Conference in Perth, Western Australia (WA) from the 29th of November to the 1st of December 2023. It had been 6 years since I last attended a SMHR conference (when hosted locally in Canberra and I was a PhD student) and my first time visiting Australia’s West coast and beautiful Noongar country.

Amidst the picturesque backdrop of Scarborough beach, with views of the sand, sky, and sea, I was reminded of the wonderful community of researchers, clinicians, practitioners, policy makers, consumers and carers, that SMHR, as the peak body for mental health research in Australia and New Zealand, connects through events such as this.

The conference theme for 2023 centred on ‘People and Place’ and broadening research perspectives to include not just the ‘who’, but the ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘why’ of mental health research. As an Early Career Researcher in the areas of suicide prevention, mental health and wellbeing, these contextual questions have often arisen in my ponderings on what is the ultimate purpose of research, whether said purpose is being fulfilled and for whom (e.g., benefit to society), who and what metrics are used to confirm such evaluations of impact, and how do we positively build momentum in an ever-changing political and global environment?

Some (of the many) conference highlights included:

  • Authentic connection: Being able to connect in-person, for the first time, with colleagues that I had been corresponding and collaborating with purely online prior to the conference gave me a greater appreciation of, and insight into, their personalities and general being-ness. The impromptu lunch and teatime chats in-between conferencing also helped me to build new connections with PhD students and ECRs from KU Leuven, the University of Queensland, the Black Dog Institute, and Orygen (to name a few), where we exchanged our insights from the different sessions, our life stories, and professional hopes for the future.
  • NCEPH representation: The strong showing of our NCEPH researchers and their work throughout the conference was admirable and it was heartening to see the synergies and existing cross-collaborations between internal and external presenters. On the second day of the conference, I was honoured to join fellow researchers in the ‘Suicide Prevention’ stream to deliver an oral presentation on the extent to which current, theoretically outlined suicide risk factors were associated with suicide attempt among people reporting suicide ideation in a nationally representative sample of Australians (N= 1,187). This study aimed to address the need to improve understandings of the critical risk pathways that drive transitions from suicidal thoughts to behaviours in the community and formed part of my larger, 2-year Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA) Fellowship project (ID: 40966).
  • The “Emotion-related impulsivity in mood disorders: clinical correlates and treatment development ideas” plenary given by Professor Sheri Johnson from the University of California Berkeley. Prof. Johnson provided an overview of her (and her team’s) substantive body of research on the trait-like tendency towards impulsivity in the context of high emotion. She described the relationship between emotion-related impulsivity and symptom severity across a wide range of psychological disorders, self-harm, and suicide-related behaviours. The development and evaluation of a promising online behavioural intervention that relied less on engaging participants in strong cognitive control was introduced to target emotion-relation impulsivity and its correlates. I was amazed by the sheer amount, and depth, of studies conducted to examine and re-define our understandings of impulsivity and the mechanisms through which it is thought to impact mental health. I had previously been familiar with the view of impulsivity as a stable personality trait linked to increased risk of suicidality via exposure to risk-taking behaviours and heightened capability for suicide. I came away with a new perspective on impulsivity as a regulatory response to emotionally charged environments and cues.
  • The “Developmentally digital: navigating online disparities and new opportunities for youth mental health” plenary given by Associate Professor Kathyrn Modecki from the Menzies Health Institute Queensland and Centre for Mental Health, Griffith University. A/Prof. Modecki highlighted that the discourse around young people’s online use tends to focus on the negatives, often at the expense of considering potential protective and contextual factors. She described the relationship between socio-economic status (SES) and the quantity and quality of young people’s online use. Children and adolescents who live in low SES circumstances were found to spend, on average, 2-3 additional hours online but did not obtain the same, available benefits from their use compared to those in higher SES households. Investigating how young people used their time online showed that some did so in a ‘moderate’ manner to seek emotional support, which was found to be protective to mental health in low SES contexts. There were also other groups, more or less intense in their use, which did not experience these protective effects because they primarily engaged in online use for short-term self-distraction, which was thought to possibly reflect avoidant coping. These findings made me think about how prevalent technological ‘connection’ is in our daily lives and the contextual considerations we need to take into account when it comes to delivering mental health education in the youth and family e-intervention space.


As the 350 delegates made their respective journeys back home following the close of the conference, I came away with a renewed sense of appreciation and inspiration instilled (aptly) by the ‘people and places’ that I had been given the privilege to share this professional experience with. Thank you again to NCEPH for supporting this professionally and personally meaningful trip.