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Our Student Awards are given in recognition of the best student abstracts and aim to encourage the next generation of clinicians to engage with the specialty. One of our winners is Melissa Sweeney, a second year PhD Student from King’s College London. Her area of research looks at the impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns on mental health and quality of life for patients with inflammatory arthritis.

Tell us more about your area of study?

I look particularly at depression in patients with inflammatory arthritis and some of their behavioural pathways, like diet and exercise. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, I've been studying the impacts of lockdowns on patients, looking at how changes to clinical care affect physical outcomes as well as mental health, and how these are related. I want to determine which factors are associated with worse disease outcomes.

There are a few other studies that we're collecting data for, but they all look at mental health and how it affects physical health. In terms of the COVID-19 study, my team's completed the baseline and two follow-ups and have two further longer-term follow-ups to go.

What does your abstract investigate?

As well as looking at the physical health of arthritis patients during different points of the pandemic, I'm looking at how mental health and quality of life ties up with physical health outcomes. Patients answered questionnaires about their physical arthritis symptoms and their overall mental health and wellbeing; I'm asking about what’s been challenging for them during the different lockdowns, such as finances and interpersonal relationships.

I've had a lot of data to look at, but it’s interesting to follow patients over a long period of time to see how they’ve been at different points. I'm also looking at how changes to clinical care might affect outcomes later.

What does your research hope to achieve?

The main hope is to better support arthritis patients during the pandemic. So far, we've seen impacts to clinical care and stress on patients' mental and physical health. By teasing apart these factors, we'll be better able to support patients, see where they're struggling and what additional support they may need.

What attracts you to this area of work?

The more research that comes out, the more we see the importance of mental health in arthritis. Patients’ quality of life can be affected by more than just physical symptoms and for chronic disorders it’s important to look at mental health. In the past, it may have been thought that arthritis symptoms would cause depression, but now it seems to be a more complicated picture. Maybe mental health affects patient’s perception and severity of symptoms? It’s an interesting time to be studying it because there’s starting to be a change in mindset about how all these elements are related.

How do you feel about your award win?

It’s encouraging, particularly because I’m still in the early stages of my PhD. It’s wonderful to have that positive feedback and gain confidence in my research skills. Also, it’s great to see that the project is having results and that people are interested in the work. It’s a huge team effort and for all the team involved, the award win has been exciting and helps to keep us motivated.

What are the next steps for you?

In terms of research, I'll be submitting a paper once we’ve finished the analysis and then doing the follow-ups. Once I get those I'll publish. Beyond that, it’s tying it in with other projects, looking at how mental health relates to physical health.

I’m still in the middle of my PhD, so I’m just starting to think about where to go after graduating. I’m focusing on what skills I need to develop and considering different options, but I’m open to what the future holds.

Our awards

Read more about our other award winners: Melissa Tordoff, Dr Kim Lauper