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Digital technology could help tackle youth mental health crisis

Monday, 30 March 2020

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 and Director of MindTech with Professor Ellen Townsend from the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham, 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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More information is available from Professor Chris Hollis Psychiatry and Director, NIHR MindTech MIC, Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at chris.hollis@nottingham.ac.uk

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The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our students. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. Ranked 103rd out of more than 1,000 institutions globally and 18th in the UK by the QS World University Rankings 2022, the University’s state-of-the-art facilities and inclusive and disability sport provision is reflected in its crowning as The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2021 Sports University of the Year. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally. Alongside Nottingham Trent University, we lead the Universities for Nottingham initiative, a pioneering collaboration which brings together the combined strength and civic missions of Nottingham’s two world-class universities and is working with local communities and partners to aid recovery and renewal following the COVID-19 pandemic.

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