Clinical psychologist Dr Stella Chan talks compassion focused therapy, Project Soothe and unconventional entrances in this month’s staff spotlight.
Inspired by a fireman father who could not leave a problem unsolved, and a mother who couldn’t leave a distressed a person unattended, Stella Chan was probably destined to become an academic clinical psychologist.
After completing her undergraduate degree at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Stella earned the opportunity to continue her education in the UK, when she was awarded an Esther Lee Millennium Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford. At Oxford she completed a master’s degree and then a DPhil (PhD) in experimental psychology. After that she undertook a second doctorate at the University of East Anglia that qualified her as a practicing clinical psychologist in 2012.
Now a Chancellor's Fellow at the School of Health in Social Science, Dr Chan researches depression with a strong focus on youth mental heath. At the Scottish Mental Health Research Network Annual Scientific Meeting 2015, Stella gave a keynote speech on 'It is good to be young - is it really? Risk and Resilience to depression in youth'
Her aim is to find out the psychological and brain mechanisms, such as thinking patterns, which can help us explain why some people are more vulnerable to developing this form of mental illness.
Stella's hope is to develop more effective ways to prevent depression and treat it at an early stage before it becomes a chronic condition.
Many people think that depression is about feeling sad, but people who have experienced it themselves or have looked after a depressed individual would know that it is worse than that. It is like being trapped in a dark tunnel and being unable to see light.
One of Stella’s many projects, and one that is extremely close to her heart, is Project Soothe. The aim of Project Soothe, which is run by a team of clinical and developmental psychologists, is to develop a bank of soothing photographs that can be shared with others to improve mental health and wellbeing.
Combining research and public engagement, the project has invited the general public to send images that make them feel soothed. Since March 2015, Project Soothe has collected 350 images of which 70% depict natural landscapes and 12% feature animals.
The next stage of the project is to promote to a wider audience and to begin to analyse scientifically how the images may impact on mood and wellbeing.
In research and psychotherapy we often ask people to create mental imagery because we know that images have a strong influence on mood. Compassion focused therapy, for example, makes use of soothing imagery to help people cope with difficult feelings.
Project Soothe’s first birthday party was a notable event in Stella’s Edinburgh career, but it wasn’t her most memorable. This spot is reserved for the day when the first video lecture for the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on The Clinical Psychology of Children and Young People was filmed.
As the lecture concerned adolescent mental health, Stella and a colleague decided to begin the video by cycling around George Square before careering into the lecture theatre. It was a youthful and unconventional entrance that Stella is unlikely to repeat any time soon, but one which will live long in the memory. The entrance also marked the beginning of an extremely successful online course.
Our MOOC has been a great success with more than 60,000 learners signed up from more than 190 countries in our first year.