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Researching the links between healthy bodies and healthy minds

18 October 2023
Student Spotlight: Scarlett Smout
In this edition of Student Spotlight, we sit down with Research Program Officer and PhD Candidate Scarlett Smout about her work examining modifiable lifestyle behaviours, social determinants and associations with mental health among Australian adolescents.
A headshot of Scarlett Smout. She is a woman with brown hair to her shoulders, and is wearing a yellow shirt. she is smiling.

Image: Scarlett Smout

Name: Scarlett Smout

Position at the Matilda Centre: Research Program Officer and PhD Candidate

What is your background and how did you come to join the Matilda Centre?

I had a bit of a winding journey towards eventually finding my home in health research.  For undergrad I did a Bachelor of Design, and I went on to do a Master of Marketing. I worked some creative and marketing jobs I loved, but always had an interest in health and in doing something more for-purpose.

My capstone project for my Master of Marketing was a turning point – I did a pro bono project for a school-based health promotion charity and found my passion. From there I started a Master of Public Health and got a job as a part-time research assistant evaluating a school-based cyberbullying prevention program in the Faculty of Health at UTS.

I then got a research assistant role at UNSW with the Centre for Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use (CREMS) at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) where I worked for a few months before our whole centre moved over to the University of Sydney, becoming what is now the Matilda Centre.

I have been with the Centre for five years and have been lucky enough to work on a huge range of projects spanning the research lifecycle; development, evaluation, implementation and translation. I have found my past lives in design and marketing surprisingly useful during each stage of research.  

Can you tell us about your PhD? How far in are you and what is your area of research?

I started my PhD back in March 2021 (during the blur of COVID lockdowns) so I’m just over 2.5 years in. I have three excellent supervisors – Dr Katrina Champion, Professor Nicola Newton and Dr Lauren Gardner. 

Broadly, my area of research is in preventive mental health, with a focus on adolescence. More specifically, I have done a series of studies looking at the relationships between six key lifestyle behaviours (the Big 6: diet, physical activity, sleep, screen time, alcohol use and smoking) and anxiety, depression and psychological distress in adolescents.

I have also had a keen focus on the ‘social determinants of health’ - factors such as socioeconomic status, gender, cultural and linguistic diversity, geographic remoteness, etc., as these are known to impact both lifestyle behaviours and mental health.

Finally, I have been examining the mental health outcomes of Health4Life, which is a school-based intervention targeting the Big 6 lifestyle behaviours, developed by Dr Katrina Champion and a large team of researchers. Over 6,500 students from 71 schools across NSW, QLD and WA participated in a cluster randomised controlled trial of Health4Life, and you can find more information about it on a recent evaluation of the Health4Life program.

What has been one of your best experiences as a PhD student?

It is hard to pick one thing! All of the best experiences have come out of situations that have originally been scary, stressful or outside my comfort zone.

Some highlights include getting my first ever journal article published, presenting my research at the Early Intervention in Mental Health Conference in Switzerland, writing a piece for MJA Insight+, and (as nerdy as it sounds) learning new statistical approaches.  

What’s one key takeaway from your research so far?

I think it would be that it does not have to be all or nothing - small lifestyle behaviour changes matter.

We have these gold standard National guidelines for adolescent health behaviours that set out lofty targets including ≥60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day, 5 servings of fruit, 2 servings of vegetables, <2hrs of recreational screen time and (depending on age) 9-11 or 8-10 hours of sleep.

While these targets are based on strong evidenceof health benefits, we know that the vast majority of young people aren’t meeting them.

And what my research has shown is that even small, incremental differences – an extra serve of veg, an extra half hour of sleep – are associated with marginally better mental health. 

This October issue, we’re celebrating National Mental Health Month. So, we want to know, what is something that you do to look after your own mental health and wellbeing?

Spending time in nature observing plants, insects, and animals is the best thing for my mental health. Of course, being a researcher, I love to make this nerdy by participating in citizen science; uploading photos of what I find to Questagame and iNaturalist.

Finding rare insects and plants and helping scientists track them helps me feel tuned in to the broader ecosystem and less stuck in my head. It also gives me a sense of hope in the face of climate change. 

Follow Scarlett on X/Twitter and keep up with her latest work on Google Scholar.