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Let’s bring radical change to children and young people’s mental health

One in 10 young people aged 5-16 have a diagnosed mental health condition – that’s three children in every classroom.

And this is not an issue that is going to go away on it's own. In fact, there are concerns that it’s getting worse. The Huffington Post reported earlier this month that self-harm among those with mental health problems under the age of 18 has more than doubled since 2011. It’s clear that services face an uphill task in dealing with the scale of this problem.

But public pressure is rising too. People are opening their eyes to the need for better services, interventions and outcomes for children and adolescents experiencing mental health problems.

In recognition of this, as part of Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, the internet is buzzing with people making noise and myth busting about children’s mental health.

But there is something often missing from these conversations around children and young people’s mental health. Research.

And it shows.

We simply don’t know enough about the big questions in young people’s mental health. Like, what can parent or schools do to help young people in crisis? What are the most effective ways to help? What are the factors causing mental health conditions in young people? And importantly, can we prevent these issues from happening?

If we hope to see radical change, we need to start answering these questions.

Last week at MQ’s Annual Science Meeting, we saw some interesting examples of what this might look like. In Birkbeck’s Babylab, scientists are using cutting edge technology to find out how Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) develops in children and if we can prevent the symptoms of ADHD in the first place.

Using attention-training tasks, like keeping your eye on a butterfly fluttering across the screen, the researchers hope to reduce the impact ADHD can have on children’s lives, like difficulty learning at school or depression and anxiety later in life.

Babies take part in attention tasks, like keeping their eye on moving objects on screen.

Also making strides to answer these questions is Dr. Helen Fisher, an MQ Fellow based at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience in London. Helen is looking at the factors that can increase or decrease a child’s risk of developing psychotic symptoms or a mental illness later in life. By pinpointing what these are, we can better identify and help children at risk and have the tools to make a real difference.

There is so much more we can, and must, do to improve our understanding by prioritising research. It will help us grow our evidence base on what works, when, for whom and how, so we can make sure children get the vital help they need.

And we have the opportunity to think even bigger too. With research comes knowledge, and with that knowledge comes the hope that we can prevent mental illness in the next generation of children and young people.

So let’s bring change to children’s mental health and put research on the map.

This article was originally posted in the Huffington Post, on 12th February 2016.

Last updated: 27 July 2018

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