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Research

Schools could play a vital role to help prevent mental health problems in young people

(23 November 2017)

More needs to be done to provide guidance and support in schools to prevent mental health problems in young people according to a new report.

The report, by researchers from the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health (Fuse), looks at young people’s mental health across North East England.

The researchers also recommend mindfulness training to promote positive mental health in children and young people.

Practical ways to prevent mental illness

The project is one of a number of regional impact studies developed by the Institute for Local Governance (ILG) based at Durham University. Phillip Edwards, Strategy and Implementation Director at the ILG, acting at the request of all 12 local authority chief executives, designed and brokered the research from all five Universities in the region.

He said: “There has been increasing concern among local authority practitioners about mental health and young people and this research was commissioned with the specific remit of finding practical ways of preventing mental illness.”

The researchers based at Durham University and Newcastle University, reviewed the latest scientific evidence, mapped existing services across the region and worked with local authorities, service providers, young people and their families to identify the ”best bet interventions” to promote mental health and prevent mental illness.

Dr Raghu Lingam, Lead of the Early Life and Adolescence research programme within Fuse and Clinical Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology and Child Health at Newcastle University, said:

“Our research highlights the scale of mental illness among young people in our region. More than 10 per cent of young people are affected and this figure is likely to be an underestimate. With stretched clinical services, preventative and evidence based-interventions, such as mindfulness training, could have a significant impact to promote the mental health of young people and reduce the burden on clinical services.”

Whole school approach

Schools are well placed to build trust and support with children and young people. The research suggests that by taking a whole school approach and working with local mental health service commissioners and providers, more guidance and support could increase the confidence of teachers in speaking to pupils about mental health.

Many young people with complex lives, such as those living in the poorest families, with caring responsibilities, or academic stress, experience urgent mental health problems but do not engage with services. These young people find it difficult to understand and explain their feelings to health professionals, have negative perceptions of the referral process and fear the associated stigma.

Services need to be flexible in format, intensity, and delivery to meet the needs of young people with the most complex lives. This includes better links between community resources and specialist mental health services to improve the reintegration of children and young people after a period of mental illness and to prevent symptoms becoming worse in the future

Evidence based approaches

The study reveals that evidence based approaches, such as mindfulness training, could promote the mental health of young people and prevent the need for higher-level clinical care. The researchers also found promising results in the use of digital technologies, such as online courses and mobile apps. These were cheap to deliver, flexible and could be used by schools, voluntary and community organisations, and in General Practioner (GP) services.

However, these technologies had a number of issues that limited their effectiveness and practical use, and are not recommended as a substitute for face-to-face care. In contrast, psychological interventions examining thoughts and behaviours, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), were found to be ineffective when used with young people without existing symptoms.

The report was published by the ILG and funded by the 12 local authorities in the region in response to national policies set by NHS England, which recommend early intervention to promote emotional wellbeing and resilience, and to prevent the onset of mental illnesses, such as clinical depression and anxiety.

Ada Burns, Chief Executive of Darlington Borough Council and representing the 12 local authorities in the North East that funded the research, said: “Too many of our children are experiencing mental distress and too few receive the appropriate help. This report helps us to reflect on current approaches taken by local authorities within Local Transformation Plans and provides a platform for how to develop future approaches that make them more effective.”

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