Researchers awarded £4m to improve adolescent mental health

Researchers from the University of Nottingham have been awarded £4m to examine the major societal challenge of building a safe and supportive online environment to protect and promote young people’s mental health.

The four-year research programme ‘Adolescent Mental Health and Development in the Digital World’ will begin in September 2021 and is part of the UKRI’s £24m Adolescence, Mental Health and the Developing Mind programme. The interdisciplinary programme is led by Professors Chris Hollis and Ellen Townsend.

The programme will address the major societal challenge of building a safe and supportive online environment with the aim of preventing or reducing the emergence of depression, anxiety, and self-harm in young people.

In the UK, one in eight young people have a mental health disorder, and one in four young women aged 17-19 have significant depression or anxiety with half of those having self-harmed; non-suicidal self-harm has nearly tripled over the past 10 years, while suicide rates per 100,000 adolescents have almost doubled. However, less than a third of all young people with mental health disorders receive any treatment.

The projects have been funded through the Strategic Priorities Fund, a UKRI cross-council initiative led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The aim of the initiative is to support multi and inter-disciplinary research and innovation that will address an area of strategic importance aligned with government policy and research priorities.

The digital word has become central to young people’s lives, never more so than during the pandemic. Our research programme aims to empower young people in the digital world by building resilience to online risks such as cyberbullying and developing evidence-based digital interventions to tackle the youth mental health crisis.

Researchers will work alongside young people (who were involved in shaping the programme and writing the bid for funding) to increase understanding of the relationship between digital risk, resilience and adolescent mental health and develop and evaluate preventative and personalised digital interventions. Two young people are co-investigators on the programme and a Young Person’s Advisory Group is involved with every step of the research process.

Members of the Young Persons Advisory Group (YPAG) have reflected on their experiences when participating in the development of the project, they shared their own personal journeys and felt valued for their contributions.

It gives me a sense of community in parts of my life that I thought I was never going to be heard. I’m really proud of how this project has turned out and how the researchers made sure to listen to young people.

Yasmin Rahman YPAG Member added: “I was impressed that the researchers took our feedback on board and treated us as peers in listening to our ideas”.

Some of the areas the group will explore include: understanding how individual differences affect digital engagement (e.g. with social media and games) and adolescent brain and psychosocial development, developing and testing a novel socially assistive robot to help regulate difficult emotions with a focus on adolescents who self-harm and developing and testing a new digital tool to help adolescents better manage impulsive and risky behaviour with a focus on reducing the risk of self-harm.

‘The mental health of young people has been hugely affected during the coronavirus pandemic. I am delighted that our research will contribute significantly to finding new ways to support young people in the digital world as we emerge from this crisis.

The project led by the University of Nottingham is being undertaken in collaboration with: UCL, Kings College London, LSE, University of Oxford, University of Bath, University of Glasgow, Open University and an international collaboration with the University of Auckland, NZ. Programme partners include, McPin Foundation, Young Minds, Centre for MentalHealth, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, Anna Freud Schools in Mind Network, Kooth, BfB labs, ProReal, Harmless and BounceBlack.

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