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Could this new platform transform how we understand young people’s mental health?

How can we better understand young people’s mental health? One big way is data. We have thousands of pieces of it from all over the UK, but right now, it’s difficult for researchers to pull it together to find the answers they need. We speak to Professor Ann John, whose innovative new tool aims to improve the speed and cost effectiveness of undertaking new research projects. 

What got you into research? 

I started off my career as a GP but later went into public health.

I went into public health because I could see that a lot of the problems people were presenting with were due to wider determinants, rather than simply ‘health’.  Working in public health enabled me to address these big problems in a broader way. 

We work with a limited pot of money so we need to ensure that everything we do is going to have the best impact. In order to do that, we need evidence – and to get evidence, we need research.

I love getting research into policy and practice – but you have to do the research first. And although I work a lot with numbers and stats, I never forget the people behind them.

Tell me about the MQ-funded project you’re leading.

Every day, as part of routine care, we’re collecting data – whether that’s in schools, or GP clinics or hospitals. That data shows what’s really happening to people. It can help us answer questions like: what’s happening to people at 25 when they’ve been prescribed antidepressants from age 11? At the moment that whole story isn’t easily available on a large scale.

The Adolescent Data Platform (ADP) will bring all this data together under one roof. It’ll be the biggest platform of its kind for young people’s mental health.

The problem with the data at the moment is that there are all sorts of rules you need to adhere to in order to analyse it properly and get these results. Lots of people try and work with the data but they’re having to repeat all these preparation processes that researchers have done before them. So, we are going to have it all ready and prepared so we can speed up research. 

And this data can inform real changes to real people’s lives. Recently, we looked at prescribing antidepressants to young people. We examined data from routine care and found the initial prescription wasn’t always the one that was recommended. The results enabled us to demonstrate that incredibly clearly to government and doctors – and they acted on it really quickly. This wasn’t theoretical advice, it was very practical. 

The other part of the project is trying to build bigger datasets relating to different conditions. Researchers interested in a certain condition will have a collection of people that they work with where they have really rich and detailed information – but often they only have a few people that they’re studying. We want to bring together all those little cohorts so we can make a big cohort that we and others can analyse to scale. The more people you have that are involved in research, the more powerful your findings are. 

Are there are any concerns people have about doing this kind of big data research? 

We know that people worry about privacy and anonymity. A smaller study we did in Wales brought together primary care data, hospital data, deprivation data and education data. Our work showed that creating something like the ADP is possible – that we’re able to effectively anonymise the data whilst also aggregating it all together so it’s useful for researchers but protects people’s privacy.

What excites you most about this project?

I think what excites me most is how quickly we’ll be able to find answers to the questions we have about mental health. We often study – why do things go wrong? But with the ADP, we’ll also be able to work together to understand, why are some adolescents protected?

One big benefit to this project is that we’ll be bringing lots of researchers from all different fields together so this will hopefully stop scientists working in silos. We can build a bio-psycho-social model which is the real model for looking at the causes of mental illness. Rather than, it’s just about genes, or just about where you grew up…

We’re making it much faster for researchers to explore the full range of factors in mental health – and come up with answers we desperately need.

Last updated: 27 July 2018

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