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7 projects transforming young people's mental health

A third of 16-24 year olds experience a mental health condition. Sadly, many of these young people are not getting the support they need at the right time.

With 75% of all mental illness starting before the age of 18, we need to help children and teenagers experience better mental health - not only to help them make the most of their youth, but also to reduce the impact that mental illness could have throughout their lives.

In short, to tackle mental illness effectively, we need to focus on where it often begins – in young people.

These seven MQ-funded projects are doing just that:

1) Providing personalised mental health treatments for young people

We don’t know enough about how the success of a treatment is affected by demographic factors, such as age, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status. This means that many children experiencing mental illness can wait years to get the right support for them.

Dr Miranda Wolpert is bridging this knowledge gap by analysing huge amounts of data on demographic factors and the types of support children have received. Her aim is to help mental health services ensure that young people receive the right treatment for them, as quickly as possible.

2) Exploring the role of social media in young people’s mental health

Social media plays a big part in the lives of many young people - and it’s often assumed that it only has a negative effect on their mental health. But could social media also provide support when it’s needed most?

Professor Liz Twigg is studying how the mental health of young people is affected by both their social media use and their relationships with their parents or carers. Using the results of an annual survey of 40,000 households, Liz hopes to provide evidence-based advice to youth mental health services, about how social media can be used appropriately to give young people the support they need.

3) Improving the mental health of young people in care

At least half of young people in care face mental health problems, often because of experiences of abuse or neglect. However, many of these children can’t access the help they need, and for a long time there has been very little progress in improving the support available.

Dr Rachel Hiller hopes to turn this around. She's using data from local authorities to better understand the mental health needs of children in care. Rachel is aiming to identify the key opportunities where social care and NHS mental health services can act to make the biggest difference for young people in care.

4) Investigating the connection between bullying and mental health

One in five children report that they have been bullied recently. However, the exact relationship between bullying and mental illness isn’t yet clear – for example, whether one causes the other, or whether other factors connect the two. This hampers our ability to offer appropriate support.

Dr Jean‑Baptiste Pingault is examining this link using the results of three studies of thousands of children and parents. He has already found the strongest evidence to date that bullying in childhood causes mental health conditions later in life. Jean‑Baptiste hopes his research can help identify who is most at risk of bullying, so that support can be offered early on to prevent bullying and the impact it can have on young people’s mental health.  

5) Predicting risk of depression in young people around the world

Depression is a global health problem, affecting one in five people around the world at some point in their lives. However, we still can’t predict which young people are most at risk of depression, holding back efforts to intervene at an early stage.  

Dr Valeria Mondelli aims to change this with a ground-breaking global project. She is analysing data from a diverse set of studies of 10-24 year olds from the UK, Brazil, Nigeria, and Nepal. By identifying risk factors of depression – some of which are specific to certain groups of young people, and others that are universal - Valeria’s work could lead to a screening tool for depression, tailored for young people across the world. 

6) Creating a ground-breaking resource of mental health data

Every day schools, GPs and hospitals are collecting huge amounts of data which could be vital for research into the mental health of adolescents. However, for researchers and policy-makers who need this data, accessing it can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

To address this, Professor Ann John is creating the Adolescent Data Platform, the largest collection of data of its kind ever developed. Ann and her team will bring together billions of pieces of data from a range of sources into one place, to improve research into mental health. The Adolescent Data Platform is already helping researchers understand the mental health of young Gypsies and Travellers, one of the most marginalised groups in the UK.

7) Identifying who is most at risk of attempting suicide

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people worldwide, leading to the loss of 800,000 lives each year. However, we can’t accurately predict who is likely to attempt suicide.

Dr Anne‑Laura van Harmelen is developing methods to identify which young people are at risk of suicide. She is looking at the brain scans of around 4,000 young people from 15 different countries and combining these with information from other studies. Anne‑Laura hopes to provide tools to help mental health services identify young people at the highest risk of attempting suicide, so they can intervene at the right time to prevent it.

Young people today face many challenges. But the opportunity in front of us – to prevent mental illness early on in life – is huge. This is why we launched our Brighter Futures programme, bringing researchers together to focus on young people’s mental health. By investing in research projects like the ones above, we are transforming the future of mental health.

Last updated: 27 September 2018

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