How can we improve young people’s mental health in a changing world?

Today is World Mental Health Day, which this year focuses on the theme of "young people and mental health in a changing world". In this blog, Deborah Kendall, Assistant Editor for ISRCTN and Trials, invites you to explore some of the exciting research currently being carried out into young people’s mental health.

An internet search of “young people’s mental health statistics” generates the following results:

  1. 75% of mental illnesses develop before a person turns 24
  2. 10% of school children have a diagnosable mental illness
  3. 1 in 5 girls aged 14 in the UK reported deliberately harming themselves in a recent study
  4. Suicide is the second leading cause of death globally in 15-29 year olds.

From these statistics, it’s clear that mental health in young people is a widespread issue with significant consequences if left untreated. We at ISRCTN are pleased that this year’s World Mental Health Day is focused on young people’s mental health and would like to take this opportunity to look at the role researchers are playing in improving young people’s wellbeing.

Is there an app for that?

It may be a cliche that young people are permanently attached to their phones, but the recent DASH study has taken advantage of this stereotype by using a web-based decision aid to encourage teenagers to seek help for self-harming behavior. All 10 of the young people who used the decision aid were offered personalized lists of potential sources of help and said that they would follow its advice and would recommend it to other self-harming teenagers.

Another ongoing study is testing whether ReZone, an emotion and wellbeing-management app offering exercises based on established psychological therapies, can help teenagers manage their emotions when feeling overwhelmed in a classroom.

Technology seems to have great potential to encourage young people to seek help for mental health problems and provide immediate access to psychological support, but can it replace support from friends or family? This brings us to the role of a young person’s support network in improving their mental health.

Support networks

Teenage years may be a time of asserting independence from parents and caregivers but a Canadian study into reducing teen violence and aggression found that enrolling both teens and their caregivers into a 10-week attachment-strengthening program (Connect) that taught mindfulness and aimed to promote empathy. Participation in the program was associated with significant decreases in teen behavioral problems and improved emotional regulation.

Even if a young person has a more chaotic home-life, this doesn’t necessarily result in poor mental health later in life

Even if a young person has a more chaotic home-life, this doesn’t necessarily result in poor mental health later in life, as shown in a Dutch study researching the effect of peer support groups on children’s mental health. This study found that children aged 8-12 years who have parents with a diagnosed mental health or substance use disorder had fewer negative thoughts and beliefs and were more likely to seek support after taking part in an 8-week support group program of sessions that taught social skills and how to cope with difficult situations.

Support networks are clearly crucial to improving a young person’s mental health, but what role can schools play in supporting young people?

Schools

Over 16,000 11-15 year olds are thought to be absent from school in the UK due to bullying, which can have a major negative impact on wellbeing for decades. However, an ongoing English study is encouraging student and school staff collaboration to reduce school bullying. The INCLUSIVE program aims to refocus school discipline from punishment to repairing relationships and to deliver social and emotional skills lessons for students. If successful, it is hoped that this approach would decrease the prevalence of bullying and aggression in participating schools and will, as a result, improve young people’s wellbeing. Baseline results from this study have already suggested a strong link between aggressive behavior or being the victim of bullying and a lower health-related quality of life.

Final thoughts

So what have we learnt in this brief look at young people’s mental health interventions? First, there is a great need for research into treatments due to the number of young people living with mental health problems. Secondly, technology can successfully act as the vehicle for mental health treatments based on established psychological therapies. Thirdly young people’s wellbeing is dependent on their support networks so these should be considered in mental health treatment research. Finally wellbeing at school can be improved by combating bullying with collaboration and relationship strengthening.

Young people today may face significant challenges to their mental health in this changing world, but there are also a lot of researchers working tirelessly to reduce the impact of those challenges. Why not celebrate this research during today’s World Mental Health Day?

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