Digital technology could help tackle youth mental health crisis

New research will look at how digital technology can be used to help support young people with mental health problems, including those emerging during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to government funding.

There is a youth mental health crisis in the UK, with 1.25 million (25%) of 17-19-year-olds experiencing significant levels of depression or anxiety; yet less than a third of these young people receive any treatment.

Academic-led digital interventions exist but few, if any, have been implemented in real-world settings. Meanwhile, there are thousands of mental health and wellbeing apps, but the vast majority have no evidence-base and some may be harmful.

This crisis coincides with a new ‘digital environment’, where being online and using social media has become integral to young people’s lives. However, social media platforms are not designed to meet the mental health needs of young people.

Now, new research will address this problem, thanks to funding from the Adolescence, Mental Health and Developing Mind programme – a £35m initiative funded by the government’s Strategic Priorities Fund and delivered by the Medical Research Council (MRC) with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The collaborative research, which will be led by Professor Chris Hollis from the School of Medicine at the University of Nottingham, and Director of the MindTech, will look at how digital technology could potentially transform adolescent mental health and wellbeing and provide a safe, and supportive, digital environment to tackle the growing crisis of unmet need arising from mental health disorders in young people (covering the definition of adolescence from age 10 up to the age of 25).

The project will address two key challenges:

    • Harnessing digital technologies to identify those young people at risk of mental health problems and developing personalised digital interventions that bridge the adolescent mental health treatment gap.
    • Understanding how the digital environment influences, and is influenced by, adolescent mental health problems, brain and cognitive development and what factors promote resilience.

The team’s engagement activities will bring together a diverse range of researchers and stakeholders to address pressing societal, public policy and research questions concerning how the new ‘digital environment’ affects, and can better support, young people’s mental health.

Professor Hollis said: “We are hugely excited to receive this prestigious UKRI/MRC Engagement Award for Adolescence, Mental Health and the Developing Mind. As we know, 75% of mental health problems emerge before age 18, and 1 in 8 children and adolescents have a mental disorder. Furthermore, rates of mental health disorder in adolescence are continuing to rise.

“The overarching aim of our research is to harness the benefits of digital technology to tackle the mental health crisis in adolescence, while at the same time providing a better understanding, and mitigating of the risks, of the digital world and social media for young people’s mental health. This award allows us to bring together an outstanding interdisciplinary team of researchers from the leading national and international centres to work with young people, clinicians and the digital technology industry to tackle these critical issues for healthcare and society.”

The research partners are: The Samaritans, XenZone Ltd, Kings College London (Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience), Auckland University New Zealand, University College London, University of Oxford, University of Bath, London School of Economics and Political Science, The McPin Foundation, The Anna Freud Centre (National Schools in Mind Network), Department of Health and Social Care, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), NHS England, Public Health England, NHSX and Local Authorities.

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