Dr Grainne McAnee, Pneuma and The YEW Project

Can you introduce yourself please?

I am Dr Grainne McAnee, Research Associate for the Your Emotional Wellbeing (YEW) project, which is a collaboration between Action Mental Health (AMH), CAUSE and Ulster University (UU). More specifically, this partnership combines AMH’s experienced counselling and resilience building services and CAUSE’s services for carers alongside Ulster University’s expertise in technology, and research and service evaluation. It combines Step 1 and 2 mental health support for adults and families and carers. This means it’s positioned at a point when people are experiencing mild to moderate levels of common mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Levels where help can be provided in the community.


Is your background in mental healthcare?

Well, I am a woman who is always evolving! My first degree and Masters - from Magee University here in Derry - was actually in Applied Computing. It gave me good skills which I would use as a quantitative researcher in the future and I had a 16 year career in the software development industry ending up in the defence industry. But I came to psychology - my second degree and my subsequent PHD - later in life, about fifteen years later, after my own experience with depression and a period in my life when I was mentally, emotionally and financially ruined.

Can you tell us more about that?

At 36, I had a well paid job, travelled internationally, owned a four bedroom semi-detached house and drove a sports car. But I was living my own personal hell. All of the things I used to distract and soothe from the sadness and fear I lived with every day, they worked for a while. But increasingly I was battling anxiety and low moods. And I was conflicted, I wanted to be with people and I pushed them away. I drank more, my behaviour became erratic, I was lonely. I knew I needed help and I wanted to ask for it but I was terrified of what would happen. The truth was, if I stopped pretending to be the smart woman with the career, the car, the travel and great social life, who would I be? I had no idea.

On the 12th March 2007, that all stopped. I started crying and I couldn’t stop. I got myself and my daughter into the car, to my parent’s home and my mum took me to the doctors. I sat there in the waiting room with my mum, like a person who had left their body. I really honestly no longer cared what happened. I was absolutely finished and exhausted and over and numb. That day I received my official diagnosis of depression and a diagnosis of anxiety would soon follow. That was the beginning of a three year depressive episode.

Is it difficult looking back on those times?

I’m 51 now and I can say, without reservation, that my experience with depression was the greatest gift I have ever been given. Don’t get me wrong, they were the worst years of my life and I never wish to repeat them. When you lose everything however, the one good thing is that you can completely start again. I have built a life that is specifically designed to protect and maintain my recovery which I work at every day of my life.

These include a new way of thinking, a purpose in life, a new career in psychology. I’ve made many new friends, different types of friends. I am in a happy relationship and enjoy a full and chaotic family life which includes my two girls and my husband Andy’s two girls, a cat and a puppy. And I’ve gained the ability to give myself a break and ask for help when I need it.

There are things I have uncovered, including my sense of who I am, my self-worth, my relentlessly optimistic nature, and who knew that was in there! And my passions.
There are things I have lost including my need to please everyone, the need for it all to be perfect always, fear, and of course, depression.

I have bad days, awful things happen and I have days when I flounder. Just like everyone else. But what I always have now is the belief that I can cope with whatever comes my way or my family’s way or my beautiful children’s way. I have the knowledge that while darkness exists in life, it no longer lives in me. Now I look for beauty and love and creativity and opportunities. So that is what I tend to see.

Is that lived experience what led you back to psychology?

In the depths of my depression, I went for lunch with two friends, Meraid and Rachel. And In the course of that lunch, they made two suggestions: one was that I could do something about where I was and how I was feeling. The second was that I should go off and do the psychology degree I had chatted about for 15 years!

So I did both.

The degree in psychology was a huge part of my healing from those years of depression and anxiety. The degree from Ulster University is extremely good. It's rated very highly. It’s a degree very focused on quantitative research. And because I already had a background in quantitative skills through my computer science degree, that's what I gravitated towards. My PhD was hugely quantitative, my supervisor was Professor Mark Shevlin who was recently named for the second year running on the Clarivate annual global list of influential researchers. I learned my trade from a master and will be forever grateful for my PhD time, it was one of the nicest and most privileged experiences of my life. However when I began my career I felt there was something missing for me and when I became involved in community projects with my own independent research I realised that I was a qualitative researcher running around in a quantitative researchers body. Now I like to combine both with the breadth that quantitative research provides and the depth of individual experience that qualitative research provides. I am a mixed methods kinda girl.

What's your PhD in?

The relationship between childhood trauma and the development of psychosis, looking at the role social factors play. It was focused on latent class analysis, a mediation and a moderation, all these sort of really quantitative models. It was fascinating stuff that I'm still very much interested in. It wasn't a million miles away in terms of who I am but I realise in retrospect that when I started doing qualitative work, it feels like I am doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

After a period working on administrative data projects which once again utilised those early computer programming skills, I worked for just over a year on a program that followed a cohort of young people who had been in care in Northern Ireland, The Care Pathways and Outcomes Study. It was another brilliant study but as a contract researcher, you're being moved from pillar to post every time you go to a new contract: meeting new people and adapting to new managers. And so when the contract came up for the YEW project, working with community groups alongside Colin Gorman and Maurice Mulvern combining psychology and computing, it seemed to combine a lot of my skills and values so I jumped at it.

Tell us more about the YEW project?

The YEW project uses a range of data driven, evidence-based techniques aimed at improving emotional wellbeing. There are a number of different elements which are delivered through our community partners, Action Mental Health and CAUSE. The interventions include one to one counselling for both adults and children and young people, group wellbeing programmes and sessions with Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners (PWPs). PWPs are the low intensity CBT therapists who are the product of the PWP route of the Applied Psychology Masters programme at Ulster University.

And how is Pneuma involved?

YEW is a collaboration between Ulster University’s School of Psychology, the School of Computing and the community projects. Pneuma is a spin-off from the University with Colin, a clinical psychologist from the Ulster University Masters programme as CEO and Maurice from the School of Computing as a director. So Colin and Maurice work for both Ulster University and are core to Pneuma, with PWPs who flow through Pneuma being part of the programme. The PWP element of the research will build on previous research done by Dr Orla McDevitt-Petrovic supporting the efficacy of the PWP low intensity CBT programme for people in our communities who are experiencing depression and anxiety at mild to moderate levels.

Elements of the project like the machine learning which will utilise the skills of the computing guys are just so cool for me, but we're also working with Action Mental Health and CAUSE, which is what really drew me to this job in the first place. You see, I'm a huge fan of collaborations, it's just the way it should be for any university. We should be collaborating with the community and that's what this project does.

All in all, It’s a perfect wee mix. The company name, Pneuma means ‘breath of fresh air’, as you know - really is just a breath of fresh air for me with its ethos and the way it operates.

So do the Pneuma PWPs feed the data back to you?

That’s right. We have a team of highly trained and monitored PWPs who go through an intense training program. In every session they deliver data is collected which measures the participants' levels of depression and anxiety. They do this at the beginning and at the end, but also check in each session using established measures. It means we have a huge amount of data that shows a person's journey, and we can use that data to monitor the whole process. One of the great things about Pneuma is that a lot of the work can be done online, which is really helpful nowadays where people may be working remotely and also clients may prefer to be at home receiving their therapy online. It removes a lot of barriers for people in terms of accessibility and cost. Colin makes sure that the PWPs are providing the best service and that they have the support and supervision they need.

In addition to the data collected from PWP sessions, all the sessions delivered to the community through AMH and CAUSE have data associated with them and this data is passed to the YEW project under the ethical process approved by the ethics committee within Ulster University. All of this data will be analysed from a service evaluation aspect and from a machine learning aspect with the huge expertise we have in both the schools of Psychology and Computing.

What’s next?

Well the more successful the program is, the more funding we can get for future work. I'm an early career researcher and I'm just getting started in spite of being 51 years old! I have spent a few years trying different types of work and I know that I have found my home here. I plan to ensure that funding is available for me to continue working with Pneuma!

I really believe in the ethos of Pneuma and it's something that resonates with me personally. Colin is very creative and innovative as well as extremely generous with the opportunities he provides and he's always pushing to change things that aren't working. Everything is on the table. Me, I am excited to be involved in as many projects as I can with Pneuma. It's just got making a difference and success written all over it.