The Big 5 Episode 8 Alyson Dodd “Measuring student well-being in line with student priorities” (PhD opportunity)

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On this episode, Alyson tells us about her research on student well-being and what students struggle with during their transition to university. She also tells us about a funded PhD studentship opportunity! (See link below.)

Shownotes:

Find Dr. Alyson Dodd: on Twitter @alysondodd and on her staff profile.

You can learn more about SMaRteN and read the report Alyson references here.

Interested in this PhD opportunity? Check out the advert here.

Transcript for this episode can be found here.

Treatments for Mental Health Problems 

To mark World Mental Health Day, I’m writing a blog that covers two separate, but related, things. Both things relate to a question a patient asked me back in about 2014 and which I have thought a lot about since then

“Why aren’t researchers churning out new treatments for mental health problems the way new treatments for cancer get churned out?” 

Author: Dr David Smailes

The first thing I wanted to write about is something that I think is implicit in that patient’s question, but doesn’t exactly answer it. It’s about how well treatments for mental health problems work in comparison to other types of health problems.

How effective are treatments for mental health problems?

A relatively widely held belief is that interventions for mental health problems aren’t very effective. However, at least some of the data we have suggests that treatments in psychiatry (such as medications for things like obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and panic disorder) work, on average, about as well as treatments for other types of health problems (such as medications for heart failure, asthma, and COPD). 

A number of caveats need to be added here, as the authors of the study – Leucht and colleagues – noted. For example, it is difficult to compare how well treatments for different illnesses or health problems work because the outcomes researchers in different fields look at are so different. That is, if a psychological/psychiatric treatment doubles the likelihood that a patient recovers from depression, is that treatment as effective as one which halves the risk of someone dying from a heart attack? That’s a hard judgement to make. We also need to take into account things like the side effects of treatments, too. All of this means, in short, that it’s very difficult to say how well treatments for mental health problems work in comparison to treatments for other types of health problems. But looking at the data from Leucht and colleagues’ analysis, treatments for mental health problems seem reasonably effective. 

That being said, I think no one would disagree with the claim that we need to develop novel, more effective treatments for mental health problems. Disappointingly, over the past few decades, few – if any – novel, more effective interventions for mental health problems have been developed. There are many possible explanations for the lack of novel, more effective treatments – low levels of funding in mental health research in comparison to things like cancer researchmental health problems simply being more difficult to understand and develop interventions forresearchers focussing on the wrong kinds of questions. But the possible explanation I’m focussing on here is that too much of the research done into the causes of mental health problems can’t be replicated. 

The problem of replication

When research can’t be replicated, this means that when other researchers try to repeat a study someone else has performed, they fail to find the same results. The results of the original study, therefore, may be untrustworthy. Over the past decade, many scientific fields have re-examined what proportion of the findings they generate are replicable, and in several areas of psychology it has been estimated that only 30-50% of findings are replicable. Mental health researchers have, however, not really examined how replicable (or trustworthy) findings in our field are. But I see no reason to expect that our field will be different to other areas of psychology. This means that it is quite likely that much of the evidence we have about what factors might cause mental health problems will be wrong. And this is important because our understanding of what causes mental health problems tends to shape the treatments we develop to treat mental health problems. So, if we aren’t doing replicable research into what causes mental health problems, then we have little chance of developing novel, more effective treatments for those mental health problems. 

Happily, there are many reasonably straightforward solutions to these problems. We know, for example, that running studies that (a) use larger samples than we have typically achieved in the past, that (b) pay more attention to how well variables are being measured, and that (c) involve fully open reporting of how the study will be run and how its data will be analysed generates findings that are more replicable and trustworthy.

How is the Psychology Department at Northumbria addressing this issue?

Here in the Department of Psychology, we have been conducting studies in line with these solutions, to try to improve the replicability and trustworthiness of mental health research. These studies have tested how replicable some findings in hallucinations research are when large sample sizes are used and have shown how we can examine whether variables in research have been measured effectively. More broadly, Northumbria University has joined the UK Reproducibility Network, an organisation that aims to improve the replicability and reproducibility of all areas of research in the UK. This is a really important step and shows that the university is committed to generating really robust, trustworthy research. 

As I said earlier, some the solutions to the problem of research findings that can’t be replicated and so seem untrustworthy are quite straightforward, but they are often time-consuming and costly. This has meant that the take-up of these solutions has been quite slow. But, at least to me, it does feel like mental health research is beginning to move in the right direction. And the quicker that can happen, the sooner we should be able to start developing novel, more effective treatments to help people struggling with their mental health. 

Interested in hearing about our research in to mental health?

Head over to our health and wellbeing research blog

Why some people believe they can hear the dead

Tom Tom/Shutterstock
AUTHORS: Adam J. Powell, Durham University and Peter Moseley, Northumbria University, Newcastle

It’s a blustery October night in 1841, and though Liverpool is sleeping, Mrs Bates is very much awake. Before her, shining brightly at the foot of her bed, is an “open vision” of her friend Elizabeth Morgan, “standing in full view before her, clothed in robes beautiful and white”. The shimmering vision lingers for “some considerable length of time” before fading away. When dawn arrives, and after a fitful sleep, Mrs Bates is informed by a messenger that Elizabeth Morgan is dead.

People have reported spooky, spiritual and extraordinary experiences for centuries. Like Mrs Bates, those who claim to have communed with the dead have found themselves ridiculed as well as revered. Our recent research has revealed that mediums, mystics and psychics are more prone to certain auditory phenomena than the general population – which may play a role in their reports of communicating with the dead.



The experience of hearing voices is far more common than you might expect. Some studies have estimated that as many as 50% of people hear the voice of their deceased loved one during periods of grieving. Elsewhere, research from our team has shown that some Christians occasionally hear God as a literal auditory voice with which they can commune.

Claiming to be able to speak with the dead is often found to coexist with the beliefs of what’s called “spiritualism” – a quasi-religious movement based on the idea that individuals continue to exist after the death of their physical bodies. Their “spirits” may appear to or communicate with living persons, often called “mediums”.

Spiritualism can be traced back to the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate, who in 1848 claimed to hear a spirit knocking on the walls of their home in New York. Mediums that “hear” the spirits, as the Fox sisters did, are said to be “clairaudient” while those who can “see” the spirits are considered “clairvoyant”.

From Arthur Conan Doyle to the Kardashians, the possibility of spiritual mediumship has endured and captivated many. In fact, the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), one of several contemporary spiritualist organisations in Britain, boasts a membership of at least 11,000.

What’s more, interest in channelling spirits, psychic predictions, and life after death seems to have been growing in both the UK and the US in recent years. But what’s actually going on when people hear voices they take to be the spirits of the dead?

‘I hear dead people’

Our new study of the clairaudient experiences of contemporary mediums is beginning to clarify why some people report hearing spiritual voices. We found that people who were more likely to experience “absorption” – a tendency to get lost in mental imagery or altered states of consciousness – were also more likely to experience clairaudience.

This finding suggests these people actually experience unusual sounds they believe to be clairaudient. But it doesn’t explain why they identify these voices with the spirits of the dead, which is the core tenet of spiritualism.

Two eccentrically-dressed women in a black and white photo, one reading the palm of the other
Mediums and mystics are enduring figures throughout history. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Significantly, nearly 75% of those we surveyed said they didn’t know about spiritualism or its set of beliefs prior to their earliest clairaudient experiences. This suggests that, for many, the sensation of speaking with spirits preceded knowledge of clairaudience as a phenomenon.

Some scholars argue that mediums later tag their voice-hearing to spiritualism as a way of explaining their auditory hallucinations. This “attributional theory” may explain why there are a large number of spiritualist mediums.

Grave concerns

Historical research suggests that emotional desires play a key role in conjuring such phenomena. In the past, this research tells us, when an individual felt melancholic and desperate for a manifestation of the supernatural, they would often record a spiritual experience shortly thereafter.

Guidance from a faith leader also seems important for conjuring the metaphysical. The work of Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, for instance, highlights how one’s desire must be met with direction, noting the importance of training and instruction for the faithful who hope to have vivid encounters with the divine through prayer.

Colourful Christian chruch service with man holding arms out in prayer
The religious regularly report supernatural experiences, including hearing the voice of God. Paul shuang/Shutterstock

However, further research has shown that spiritual practice does not necessarily make perfect – at least not without a pre-existing tendency towards immersive mental activities. For mediums, this means that “yearning and learning” is not enough. Clairaudience may require a unique proclivity for voice-hearing.

Healthy hearing

Researchers are increasingly interested in the similarities and differences between clairaudience and several other forms of voice-hearing, like those experienced by people living with mental illness.

For example, individuals with psychosis also frequently hear voices. By comparing such voices to the clairaudience reported by mediums, researchers have already begun to identify important differences that distinguish clairaudience from the experiences of people living with psychosis. For example, mediums tend to exert more control over their voices – and they report very little distress accompanying the experience.

Back in Liverpool in 1841, Mrs. Bates “rejoiced in the vision” of her friend at the end of her bed, while Elizabeth Morgan’s husband is said to have received “consolation in the valley of grief” when he learned of the vision. Hearing the dead is not necessarily a sign of mental distress – or supernatural possession. For mediums, it may be a source of comfort – a quality of the way that they experience reality.

About the Authors

Adam J. Powell, Assistant Professor (Research), Religion and Medical Humanities, Durham University and Peter Moseley, Senior Research Fellow, in the Deparment of Psychology ar Northumbria University

Want to read about more work like this?

You can read more about the work of our Psychopathologies group in the Health and Wellbeing Research blog

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Living with dementia during the pandemic

AUTHORS: Anna Svorenova and Dr Michael Craig

Medical discoveries, improved healthcare, and innovations in technology mean that people are living longer than ever. But this great news comes with a catch; age is the biggest risk factor for dementia.

Dementia is an umbrella term which refers to a group of neurodegenerative conditions that progressively damage the brain and impact a person’s thinking skills, often including their memory, attention, and language abilities. Current statistics suggest that around 850,000 people are living with dementia in the UK, and, strikingly, 1 in 3 people born today will develop dementia in their lifetime. By 2050, it is expected that there will be more than two million people in the UK with dementia.

For people in the later stages of dementia, completing even basic everyday tasks, such as counting money to pay for something in a shop, making a cup of tea, telling a story to a friend, or recognising a family member, might become difficult. Because of these challenges, people with dementia often rely on help from others. This can range from basic support to more complex care. In most cases, this help can only be delivered in person and not remotely or online. In-person social activities, for example, dementia cafes in the community, also play an important role in the social support network for people with dementia. 

These social support networks are important. In a recent study, it was found that people with dementia who live alone and are deprived of social interaction are more likely to experience loneliness, feelings of depression, and poorer quality of life. Social support and stimulation can also benefit thinking skills. A review of research findings found there was good evidence that engaging in stimulating activities can help to maintain and possibly even improve thinking skills in people with dementia. Amazingly, they suggested that social stimulation was more beneficial than any existing medications.

These findings show how important social networks and stimulation are in helping people with dementia to live healthy, independent lives. It is therefore reasonable to assume that any major disruption to these activities could have profound consequences. Unfortunately, the landscape for dementia support changed dramatically in early 2020.

On 23rd March 2020, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would enter a national lockdown to reduce the spread of a novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Since then, further lockdowns have been imposed alongside more general restrictions, including social distancing and stay at home guidance. These restrictions have helped reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and reduce fatalities, especially in high risk groups that included older adults and people with underlying health conditions such as dementia.

The wider impact of the pandemic on people with dementia and their close ones is being monitored closely by organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society. This is partially because many people with dementia have had limited access to in-person support networks and activities in the year since the first lockdown was announced. This has included, for example, a limited ability to attend dementia cafes in the local community and an extended period where visits to care home residents were not permitted.

We know that these types of social activities are important for wellbeing and thinking skills, so what impact has this had? It is possible that lack of social interaction and engagement has negatively affected people with dementia through increased loneliness, feelings of depression, and encouraged declines in their thinking skills. This possibility is in keeping with a report from the Alzheimer’s Society in June 2020 that suggested that people with dementia were the “worst hit” by the initial lockdown, where a striking 82% of people affected by dementia reported an increase in dementia symptoms. Also, 79% of care home managers reported that lack of social contact had contributed to health and wellbeing deteriorations in their residents with dementia. Continuing research in this area will be important to help us understand the impact of the pandemic and how to best manage future possible lockdowns to protect people with dementia as best possible.

The dramatic change from normal ways of working meant that dementia organisations and service providers were required to respond rapidly and deliver social support in new ways that could be as impactful as possible. While in-person support will continue to hold a special role in the lives of those with dementia, one success story is the ability to deliver Playlist for Life activities online and remotely. Playlist for Life uses music from an individual’s life to stimulate conversations, singing, and general wellbeing. A 2017 review of research investigating the effectiveness of music therapy in dementia concluded that it is “the only convincingly effective intervention” for reducing behavioural symptoms, including aggression and agitation. During the pandemic, the Alzheimer’s Society successfully converted their Singing for the Brain activities to an online format that can be delivered through Zoom or over the phone (“Ring and Sing”). The flexibility of this programme and ability to deliver it online offers new opportunitis for ways to provide social support for people with dementia.

What does the future look like for providing social support to people with dementia? While the wider impact of the pandemic on people with dementia will not be known for a long time, green shoots are emerging. Vaccination rates are rising, and restrictions are easing, so it should be possible for people to return to attend regular social activities soon. It is hoped that we can also learn from the success of converting some social activities to run remotely. In the future, it might become standard practice to deliver a mix of in-person and remote social support activities that can improve accessibility for people who can’t attend in-person events. This could help these activities reach more people with dementia in the community. Research in this area could be of great benefit.

Dementia Action Week

This article was written for Dementia Action Week (17 – 23 May 2021), which is an annual weekly event to raise awareness of dementia. You can read about Dementia Action Week and how you can help here and by following #DAW2021 on social media.

Can you help with our research on this topic?

We are investigating whether people feel the coronavirus restrictions have affected their memory and general thinking skills. We hope the outcomes of this – and other excellent work being conducted around the world – can inform our understanding of the impact of social restrictions and how we care for people with dementia if we experience future pandemics.

The study is recruiting people aged 18 and over who live in the UK. You can read more about the study and take part here.

About the authors

Anna Svorenova is a 2nd Year Psychology student in the Department of Psychology. Dr Michael Craig is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology and a member of the Psychopathologies subgroup of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group. You can read more about the work of the group in the Health and Wellbeing blog

References

Abraha, I., Rimland, J. M., Trotta, F. M., Dell’Aquila, G., Cruz-Jentoft, A., Petrovic, M., … & Cherubini, A. (2017). Systematic review of systematic reviews of non-pharmacological interventions to treat behavioural disturbances in older patients with dementia. The SENATOR-OnTop series. BMJ open, 7(3), e012759.

Alzheimer Research UK. Dementia Statistics [2021]. Retrieved from: https://www.dementiastatistics.org/statistics/numbers-of-people-in-the-uk/

Alzheimer’s Society (2020) Worst hit: dementia during coronavirus. Accessed on 20th April 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/sites/default/files/2020-09/Worst-hit-Dementia-during-coronavirus-report.pdf

Alzheimer’s Society. Survey: Caring for a person living with dementia during the COVID-19 pandemic. [Online] 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/COVID-19-report-news

Pedersen, S. K., Andersen, P. N., Lugo, R. G., Andreassen, M., & Sütterlin, S. (2017). Effects of music on agitation in dementia: a meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 742.

Prince, M. et al. (2014) Dementia UK: Update Second Edition report produced by King’s College London and the London School of Economics for the Alzheimer’s Society

Victor, C. R., Rippon, I., Nelis, S. M., Martyr, A., Litherland, R., Pickett, J., … & IDEAL programme team. (2020). Prevalence and determinants of loneliness in people living with dementia: Findings from the IDEAL programme. International journal of geriatric psychiatry, 35(8), 851-858.

Wittenberg, R., Hu, B., Barraza-Araiza, L., & Rehill, A. (2019). Projections of older people with dementia and costs of dementia care in the United Kingdom, 2019–2040. Care Policy and Evaluation Centre, London School of Economics and Political Sciences.

Woods, B., Aguirre, E., Spector, A. E., & Orrell, M. (2012). Cognitive stimulation to improve cognitive functioning in people with dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (2).

Spotlight on: Dr Katri Cornelissen

Dr Katri Cornelissen is the Director of Transnational Education and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. She is a researcher within our psychopathologies research group and teaches our very popular eating disorders option module.

Tell us about your career history

I have been at Northumbria University since 2002. Prior to this I worked at Newcastle University. While at Northumbria University my teaching has been mostly focused on eating disorders which is also my main research topic area and research skills. At my time at Newcastle University, I was mostly involved in clinical education, and a lot of teaching was within neuroscience.

What got you interested in psychology?

Originally, I wanted to understand how the human brain works and how much the brain can be retrained and whether this retraining changes the neural circuity. From there, my interests took me into clinical psychology and particularly I wanted to understand the consequences of brain trauma and infarct and how we can best rehabilitate individuals with severe brain damage. Through personal experience of eating disorders, my interest shifted with time more towards body image and eating disorders and trying to understand what causes eating disorders and how they can be treated.

What was the topic of your Phd?

My PhD was about Anorexia Nervosa and body image distortion in eating dsiorders.

What are your main areas of research currently?

My main research is currently within body image and body distortion. I do not anymore wish to single out eating disorders but am rather interested in investigating and trying to understand body image distortion in both non-clinical samples and various different clinical samples. I am also doing some research on social media impact on body image which is always a popular topic amongst students.

What one psychology book would you recommend?

There is too many to name one. I want to mention Andy Fields’ statistics book as the book still stays by my bedside and has done for years.

What would you have liked to do if you hadn’t followed a career in psychology?

I did not start my career as a psychologist. As a matter of fact my very first degree was in chemistry. Since then, I have visited speech pathology, linguistics, medicine, but I feel most comfortable in psychology. Lesson to learn – you can always change career, it will not harm you to be qualified in multiple areas.

On a personal note…

Most of you will discover sooner or later that I am a dedicated gym goer, and can be seen every morning at the gym (we have a great gym at the campus). However, even more of that, I am a dedicated rock climber and skier, and will take the opportunity to go to the mountains when I can. At those times you will not reach me by any means. I have a family, with one GCSE student and one A level student, so, trust me, I understand what you are going through.

Is there anything else you would like students to know?

At Northumbria we are relaxed and approachable, but we expect professional behaviour. We want to help you on your journey and want to support you. You will not be turned away if you wish to discuss topics in psychology. However, we are not there to give you answers. We are there to help you find the answers.

Sooner or later, you will discover that I have an accent. Please come and tell me your guess where I am originally from. I find that very entertaining. Most people do not guess. Equally most students cannot pronounce my surname. I do not mind if you get it wrong. I may get the pronunciation of your surname wrong which I do apologise for.

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Emotion regulation in the ups and downs of bipolar disorder

We all experience emotions and changes to our emotions throughout the day. We also try to maintain, control or enhance our emotions, either consciously or unconsciously – a process known as emotion regulation. In this blog, Dr Alyson Dodd talks about emotion regulation, with a particular focus on her research into bipolar disorder.

Author: Dr Alyson Dodd

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Psychologists spend an awful lot of time theorising and researching emotion regulation – why we do it, how we do it, what’s effective and what’s not. One of the main reasons that psychologists are so interested in emotion regulation is because it’s important for understanding how we can navigate everyday life and achieve our goals. It influences our performance across a number of domains including work, sport and exercise, and relationships. It’s also important for our mental health and well-being. Some emotion regulation strategies are helpful, such as problem-solving, engaging in pleasant distracting activities, or thinking differently about the situation. Yet others are unhelpful, such as suppressing how we feel, or ruminating (focusing on negative emotions and their consequences). This is my particular interest – looking at how the ways in which people think about and respond to their moods and emotions can become problematic.

Bipolar disorder is characterised by mood fluctuation and the experience of both low mood (depression) and high mood (hypomania or mania). Elated moodis a key feature of hypomania and mania. My collaborator Dr June Gruber at UC Boulder in the States has even argued that there is a dark side to happiness. Work from her lab suggests that mania arises from a phenomenon called positive emotion persistence, particularly emotions related to reward and achievement. Irritability is also commonly experienced in these mood states, as is feeling activated – doing more, speaking more, racing thoughts, sleeping less, engaging in risky behaviours, and inflated self-esteem.

As you can imagine, mania can cause a lot of problems for people – with relationships, finances, education and work, and hospitalisation. Yet some aspects of hypomania, which is less extreme, can feel good, and be seen as driving productivity and creativity. Coupled with this, there is evidence that bipolar disorder is characterised by an overly sensitive reward system, and making excessively ambitious goals for the future – meaning people with bipolar disorder are more likely to approach rewarding situations when available.

What happens when someone wants to experience the elation and energy of high mood, but fears a manic relapse? My research has found that that people with bipolar disorder have mixed and even conflicting views about their high mood, seeing both positive and negative aspects. On one hand, they might feel like the world is full of unlimited opportunities and they can achieve more when they feel high, whereas on the other hand, they might think they are losing control of their mind and are about to have a breakdown. Coupled with this, while not wanting to become depressed, low mood may be seen as keeping them safe from losing control. People can become hypervigilant to their emotions, and interpret these as the first signs of mood episodes.

To give examples, if someone with bipolar disorder is feeling happy and full of energy, and believes this is driving their creativity and productivity, they might try to amplify positive emotions by focusing on and savouring it, or engaging in more activities that make them feel good. However, if they fear they are becoming too high, they might try to dampen positive emotions by thinking they don’t deserve to feel happy or focusing on negatives. To avoid depression, people with bipolar disorder might take risks, suppress their feelings, or ruminate. Our systematic review of emotion regulation strategies in bipolar disorder found that people with bipolar disorder tend to respond to negative and positive emotions with unhelpful emotion regulation strategies more than people from a healthy population group, and that these strategies are related to heightened mood symptoms and poorer functioning and quality of life. 

A common misconception is that people with bipolar disorder ‘swing’ very quickly from one extreme to the other. This is not generally the case, but many people with bipolar disorder do report day-to-day fluctuation in how they feel. Recent psychological approaches to treating bipolar disorder – including our hot off the press Thrive-BD programme – have aimed to help people to manage this ongoing fluctuation (or instability). Part of this is about normalising and accepting emotions, identifying that a ‘healthy’ emotional response is not mania or depression, and understand where they are responding to emotions in ways that become problematic.

Such approaches have the potential to complement traditional psychological interventions for bipolar disorder that focus on preventing relapse into a full-blown mood episode, by helping people to manage everyday emotional fluctuation. Myself and collaborators Dr Manja Koenders and Dr Kim Wright recently ran a workshop on psychological treatment for emotion regulation problems in bipolar disorder at the International Society for Bipolar Disorders conference. As Kim put it, people should be allowed to grieve for things that are lost without it being depression, and get fired up about projects without it being mania. We need more research, but supporting people to regulate their emotions more effectively might help them to not get too tangled up in them that we can’t do the things we want to do and achieve the things we want to achieve – and that is true for all of us.

About the Author

Dr Alyson Dodd is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and a member of the Psychopathologies subgroup of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group

References

Dodd, A., Lockwood, E., Mansell, W., & Palmier-Claus, J. (2019). Emotion regulation strategies in bipolar disorder: A systematic and critical review. Journal of Affective Disorders246, 262-284.

Dodd, A. L., Mansell, W., Morrison, A. P., & Tai, S. (2011). Extreme appraisals of internal states and bipolar symptoms: The Hypomanic Attitudes and Positive Predictions Inventory. Psychological Assessment23(3), 635.

Johnson, S. L., Fulford, D., & Carver, C. S. (2012). The double‐edged sword of goal engagement: consequences of goal pursuit in bipolar disorder. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy19(4), 352-362.

Wright, K., Dodd, A., Warren, F., Medina-Lara, A., Dunn, B., Harvey, J., … & Lynch, T. (2021). Psychological Therapy for Mood Instability within Bipolar Spectrum Disorder: A Randomised, Controlled Feasibility Trial of a Dialectical Behaviour Therapy-Informed Approach (the ThrIVe-B Programme).