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Breaking barriers into research on youth mental health and substance use

25 March 2024
Matilda Centre projects funded for 2024
The Matilda Centre was proud to accept funding from several research streams to start new projects in 2024 in the areas of mental health and substance use. We sat down with some of the researchers starting new projects and heard what they’re most excited about with their new projects.
As a research centre focused on high-quality research into mental health and substance use, the Matilda Centre is often exploring new and emerging areas of research.
Whether our funding is from the NHMRC, Henry Halloran Trust, government grants, or many of the like, research from the Matilda Centre is addressing new and unique areas to help Australians have a better, mentally healthy future.

As we head into 2024, we have newly funded projects, including in the areas of post-traumatic stress, co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, alcohol-induced anxiety, vaping, and gendered outcomes.

We met up with the researchers to learn more about their projects and what they’re most excited about.

Associate Professor Matthew Sunderland

Matt Sunderland has short, brown hair and is wearing a collared blue tshirt. He is not looking at the camera and is laughing.

NHMRC Ideas Grant

Standing on the shoulders of giants: harmonising 40 years of data to revolutionise Australia’s response to increases in psychological distress


“Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” is a new project that will examine changes in psychological distress over time by combining multiple population-based datasets that the Australian federal and state governments have been collecting for the past 40 years. 

We will apply modern statistical techniques to ensure that these datasets can be accurately compared despite using different samples and measures. We will then examine trends over time in the total population and at-risk subgroups as well as determine whether observed changes are due to aging, or the environmental or social factors. 

This project will, for the first time, make use of data that has only been examined previously in isolation. With new and innovative statistical methods, we can combine and accurately compare data and efficiently repurpose these datasets to provide new insights into the mental health of the population. Having a better understanding of the past will allow us to better predict future rates of psychological distress and direct services to where they are needed the most.

Associate Professor Lexine Stapinski

Lexine Stapinski. She is wearing a black shirt and has long, blonde hair tied back in a bun that is visible. She also has a fringe hanging over part of her face. She is looking at the camera and is smiling.

NHMRC Investigator Grant

Innovative solutions to prevent and treat the vicious cycle of anxiety and alcohol use

Alcohol use disorders often co-occur with, and are developmentally related to, anxiety. It is common to drink alcohol as a way of coping with anxiety symptoms, but over time this coping pattern exacerbates anxiety and alcohol use and interferes with recovery.  

My research program will develop effective and translatable prevention, early intervention and treatment approaches to interrupt the anxiety-alcohol cycle and reduce this significant mental health burden.

The focus on co-development of interventions with their intended users, to ensure the approaches are engaging, culturally-inclusive and empowering. This will help to ensure that effective mental health interventions reach those who need them most.

Associate Professor Louise Mewton

Louise Mewton is sitting on a bench, looking straightforward. She has long, blonde hair out to her shoulders and is wearing a white blazer and purple undershirt. She is smiling.

2024 Fulbright Scholarship

Advancing our understanding of adolescent health and brain development: combining epidemiology and neuroscience  

This Fulbright award consists of a 4-month visit to the Medical University of South Carolina, where I will be hosted by Professor Lindsay Squeglia, bringing together Australian and US teams with complementary skills in epidemiological methods and neuroscience to improve our understanding of adolescent neurodevelopmental and health outcomes.

Through established collaborations, as well as new relationships as part of this exchange, we will develop sustainable and highly productive connections between two leading research centres focusing on adolescent health in Australia and the US.

This project gives me a unique opportunity to act as a cultural ambassador in the US during my stay. This means focusing beyond the research aims, on cultural knowledge, friendship, and good-will as a means of strengthening the Australian-US relationship.

Professor Katherine Mills

Kath Mills is wearing a red and white checked button up shirt and has short, spiked hair. She is smiling.

NHMRC Investigator Grant

Disrupting the cycle of post-traumatic stress and substance use disorders: Innovations in treatment and early intervention

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a chronic and disabling mental health disorder that is frequently complicated by co-occurring alcohol and/or other drug use. Current siloed approaches to the treatment of this comorbidity, whereby each disorder is treated separately and sequentially, are largely ineffective.

With this investigator grant I hope to discover new ways of best treating these conditions, focusing on integrated therapies that address both conditions at the same time.  

This grant provides support for a number of projects to be undertaken that will build our understanding of these disorders and their treatment, as well as supporting early career researchers and higher degree research students to build capacity in this area of unmet need.

Associate Professor Louise Mewton and Associate Professor Matthew Sunderland

US National Institutes of Health Grant

Mapping the Neurobiological Risks and Consequences of Alcohol Use in Adolescence and Across the Lifespan

The developmental processes contributing to alcohol use disorders (AUD) have long been recognized, but there remain substantial gaps in our knowledge about the neurobiological predictors of “milestones” along the pathway to AUD, as well as the neurobiological consequences of alcohol use throughout adolescence into midlife and older age.

The project's overarching aim is to uncover the neurobiological risks of adolescent alcohol use and distinguish these from the consequences of alcohol use in adolescence and across the lifespan. 

We are excited about this project because it provides us with funding to grow an international team of junior researchers focused on investigating the best ways to achieve optimal brain health at key points across the lifespan.

Professor Cath Chapman

Cath is wearing a black jacket and is looking straight ahead. She has shoulder length dark hair and has dark eyes. She is smiling.

NHMRC Investigator Grant

Gender-informed prevention of mental health and substance use problems: addressing a changing global landscape in adolescence and beyond

Mental and substance use disorders are among the leading causes of burden of disease in Australia and globally. Yet, our responses to these conditions have generally not been driven by understanding of gender-specific differences in their prevalence and harms.

Added to this - recent evidence points to significant trends in prevalence and harms that are of particular concern for young women. Over the next five years I hope to answer some key questions about the nature and impact of these changes to inform the co-design and evaluation of contemporary prevention programs for young Australians. 

For the first time we have sufficient, large Australian longitudinal datasets to examine these trends, explore their inter-relationships and identify gender-specific risk and protective factors for mental and substance use problems at individual, peer and community levels. I’m excited about using this knowledge to inform the next generation of mental health and substance use prevention programs for Australian youth.

Dr Marlee Bower

Marlee is looking straight ahead and is wearing a simple white shirt. She has shoulder length, curly brown hair and is smiling.

Henry Halloran Research Trust

Climate Change, Place and Mental Health Incubator

The newly-commencing Climate Change, Place and Mental Health Incubator is a first-of-its-kind multidisciplinary research project aiming to understand the links between the built environment, mental health and climate change in Australia.

The three-year Incubator project will use nationally-representative data, diverse expertise and advanced research methods to piece together how our built environment and community influences our experiences of climate change and related disasters and associated mental health impacts.

The project will deliver rigorous and timely evidence on the intersection between climate change and mental health and will lead to key strategies to support place-based psychological resilience in a future marked by increasing environmental changes.

The Incubator represents a unique opportunity for meaningful cross-faculty collaboration within the University of Sydney – including the Faculty of Medicine and Health, School of Architecture, Design and Planning, and Sydney School of Education and Social Work – and the University of South Australia to create innovate data and solutions to tackle climate change and its impacts on human health and wellbeing.

Associate Professor Louise Mewton

Louise Mewton is sitting on a bench, looking straightforward. She has long, blonde hair out to her shoulders and is wearing a white blazer and purple undershirt. She is smiling.

Learning with FASD

Secondary school expansion

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) refers to a range of neural, physical, psychological, learning and behavioural problems caused by exposure of a fetus to alcohol during pregnancy. With timely diagnosis and early intervention, positive outcomes across a range of life goals are more likely to be achieved. 

In 2020, the Matilda Centre for Mental Health and Substance Use was funded by the Department of Health and Aged Care to develop the Learning with FASD portal, a website dedicated to the provision of evidence-based resources to help educators understand and support children with FASD in Australian primary schools. The Department of Health and Aged care has identified the need to develop similar resources for secondary school educators. 

Researchers at the Matilda Centre and their collaborators will address the important gap in educator’s skills and knowledge by providing school leaders, teachers and the broader school community with easy-to-access, evidence-based resources and tools to sensitively and effectively recognise and respond to potential indicators of FASD in the secondary school context. 

We will be able to extend the real impact we’ve already had in terms of building capacity in the primary school sector, and now have impact in the secondary school sector and improve outcomes for both children and adolescents affected by FASD.

Interested in learning more about the research at the Matilda Centre? Be the first in the know for any new announcements by following us on LinkedIn

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