rofile photo of Justin. He is looking straight at the camera.

Source: Courtesy of Dr Justin Chapman.

Having recently joined the Griffith Centre for Mental Health after several years as a Research Officer at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Dr Justin Chapman was eager to talk to the Library about his research and advice for PhD candidates. 

Justin is passionate about promoting physical activity in adults with mental illness. His recent work involves implementing healthy lifestyle intervention programs for youth and adults recovering from mental illness across Queensland. The focus of this work is on building collaborative relationships between community and public hospital settings to improve access and availability. 

What path led you to your research? 

I’ve always been interested in science. I completed my undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics, but then had a change of heart and decided to pursue a different avenue. Being keenly interested in sports and exercise at the time, I became a personal trainer and started working at a local gym. 

Some of my clients reported that exercise was helping their mental health and wellbeing. Reflecting on how exercise helped me through some tough times in the past, I decided to take a mental health focus in my work. I developed exercise programs for people with mental health issues in partnership with not-for-profit organisations and the public hospital. Through this, I had the privilege of seeing how one-on-one exercise support can make such a big difference to people’s lives. Convinced that lifestyle programs such as exercise and healthy eating programs should be available for all, I did my PhD in physical activity for people with mental illness. I’ve been focusing on the science of implementation and health services research to improve the lives of people with mental health issues ever since. 

My passion for exercise and mental health arises from wanting to see improved equality of health for people experiencing mental health challenges. 

What sparked your passion for this topic? 

Mental health is commonly misunderstood. Our wellbeing is a product of our upbringing and environment, behaviours and social influences, and biological and psychological determinants. The experience of disadvantage or adversity in any of these areas contributes to stress, distress and reduced health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, many people have challenges or adverse experiences in these domains of life. This reduces their opportunities, negatively impacts their life trajectories and contributes to a cycle of inequality and disadvantage. 

Exercise has diverse benefits including improving health and cognition, helping with stress management and improving social and community connection. My passion for exercise and mental health arises from wanting to see improved equality of health for people experiencing mental health challenges. Even though there are many other factors that contribute to our experience of health and wellbeing, I believe that physical activity is one of those vital signs that we should be measuring and supporting in healthcare settings, across the spectrum of prevention, early intervention and management. 

What projects are you currently working on? 

My flagship project is on embedding healthy lifestyle programs for people with mental health issues into routine practice with community organisations and hospital and health services. My team has managed to source funding over the last six years and have seen over 600 participants benefit from these programs. We take an integrated service approach by establishing collaborative relationships between community and public hospital settings to improve access and availability of the program across different phases of care. Outcomes have included improved quality of life, recovery, sense of belonging, motivation and reduced psychological distress.  

Another exciting project involves evaluating the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges of the non-government community mental health sector. Funded by the Queensland Mental Health Commission and the Queensland Alliance for Mental Health, my team and I will make recommendations and provide a 10-year roadmap for reform of the sector. 

My research role at Griffith is with the ALIVE National Centre of Mental Health Research Translation. I’m looking forward to expanding the influence of this work for improved outcomes of people with mental health challenges. 

What advice would you give to the current generation higher degree by research candidates who are keen to make an impact? 

It depends on what your field is, but my advice on making an impact is to be as translational as possible. This means translating the outcomes of your research into results that directly benefit people: 

  • Go out there and work with industry and the organisations and services that you hope will be the end-users of your research. 
  • Engage in co-design and co-production to make sure your work is informed by and developed in partnership with the groups that you hope will be the beneficiaries of your work. 
  • Don’t be afraid to juggle multiple jobs in different sectors—the connections you make across settings will benefit you in the long term, and you’ll have access to different funding schemes that will allow you to pull it all together. 
  • Develop coherence in your vision and dedicate your efforts to incremental progress. The reality is that we have a lot less control over things than we’d like, and revolutions only happen when many people work coherently and incrementally. 

Humans are relational and contextual—if you find that the relationships and context of your work environment are not conducive to your productivity or mental health, then change them. That’s my two cents!