Solving the cognitive puzzle of mental health

Cognitive skills are essential for your daily life. In fact, you are using these skills right now to read this blog post. So, what does cognition mean and how is it related to mental health?

Cognition is a term for the mental processes that we use every day to understand the world around us and learn new things. It is a set of mental abilities such as attention, memory and problem-solving. These skills are crucial for our daily lives and enable us to complete any task, whether simple or complex.

woman stirring cup of tea

For example, when you make a cup of tea, you need to remember where you keep the teabags (memory), plan the order that you will put the teabags and the milk in (planning), pay attention to the kettle boiling (attention) and decide whether the tea is strong enough (decision-making).

Unsurprisingly, when someone experiences a problem with their cognition it can have a big impact on their quality of life.

Cognition and mental health

Our cognitive abilities change over the course of our lives and can be influenced by many factors, for example, age, health or sleep.

People who have experienced mental health problems sometimes report difficulty with their cognition. This can range from minor problems in remembering things or difficulty concentrating to more severe difficulties that can impact the person’s work or home life.

Research has shown that people with schizophrenia are more likely to have impaired cognitive abilities than people with no history of mental health problems, particularly in the areas of memory, attention, problem-solving and decision-making.

Studies have found that these difficulties may develop before the person’s first episode of schizophrenia and before they are prescribed any medication for their mental health. This suggests that these problems are not simply due to the side effects of medication, such as sleepiness.

arm sticking out from under duvet

More recently, cognitive impairments have been linked to other mental health disorders, such as bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder.

Poor concentration can be a symptom of depression or mania and cognitive problems can worsen during mood episodes.

For some people with mood disorders, these problems can persist when they are well.

It is important to note that not everyone with a mental health diagnosis will experience problems with their memory or concentration. For people who do experience these difficulties, the type and extent of these problems vary from person to person.

Some people may have difficulty concentrating or remembering things only during periods when they are unwell. Other people may experience longer-term difficulties even if they no longer have any symptoms. Understanding who develops cognitive impairments and why are important research questions.

pen and glasses resting on a newspaper crossword

Solving the puzzle

The causes of impaired cognition are not fully understood. There are many reasons why someone who has experienced mental health problems might develop these difficulties.

Cognition could be affected by current symptoms, medication, lifestyle factors or genetics. Studies have shown that poor cognitive function can impact a person’s ability to live independently, socialise and return to work even if they are no longer experiencing symptoms of their mental health condition.

It is hoped that understanding what causes these problems could lead to better support and potentially new treatments for individuals with mental health disorders.

Take part

At NCMH, we would like to learn more about what causes cognitive problems and what can be done to help people who experience them. To do this, we have been working to develop an online way of conducting learning and memory tasks.

Examples of these tasks include solving puzzles and remembering pictures or words. You can take part in the research whatever your diagnosis or experience.

If you are interested in helping us with this research or would like to know more about the study, please email our research team at compass@cardiff.ac.uk

Amy Lynham
Amy is a research assistant with NCMH and a PhD student with MRC CNGG.
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