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Child mental health

Pioneering research to prevent and treat mental health issues in our young people

One in five children and young people in the UK has a probable mental health issue, according to the Mental Health of Children and Young People 2023 survey, co-led by the University of Exeter. Our research is finding new ways to combat this.

We face a global crisis exacerbated by unprecedented challenges – our research has found that the mental health of young people deteriorated more rapidly during the pandemic.

To begin to reverse this mental health emergency, urgent action is needed. The University of Exeter is a leader in the development of new approaches to prevention and intervention, as well as the vital training and expansion of the mental health workforce. Our groundbreaking work ranges from exploring triggers of mental health problems, to developing new ways of preventing those problems in early childhood, to pioneering work with adolescents who have a clinical diagnosis.

We are running nationwide trials in schools focused on specific mental health difficulties, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression. With adolescents and young adults, our large-scale trials will create a blueprint of best practice across universities to prevent mental health issues at a particularly vulnerable time in life. We are also leading the way in training the workforce to deliver these interventions across the UK.

Our research in children’s health and wellbeing is brought together in the Children and Young People's Wellbeing @ Exeter Research Network. The network represents 16 different groups and was formed to ensure that strong collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking and skills are at the heart of our research, for the benefit of children and young people.

Young children playing

Prevention: starting early

Schools are a key component in the bid to improve mental health and every element of school life can play a role. In a world first, our team is studying the role of adventurous play on children’s mental health, with a focus on school playtimes.

Led by Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology at University of Exeter Medical School, this public health research aims to give children better opportunities for adventurous play to help them develop coping skills early in life. The aim is to provide children with opportunities to learn about uncertainty and feelings of fear in the positive context of play. In turn, this learning aims to help children manage anxiety better.

Professor Dodd is part of Exeter’s Children and Young People’s Mental Health (ChYMe) research collaboration which focuses on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people, with the aim of developing evidence-based policy and practice, to improve the lives of children and young people and the communities around them.

“Exeter’s interdisciplinary approach spans from this early prevention work through to delivery of therapies at all levels of development. By working together, we’re committed to having a real impact and reducing mental health problems throughout life.”

Refining mindfulness for adolescents

One in five young people aged between eight and 16 years old has already experienced a probable mental health disorder. Exeter academics have been instrumental in developing an innovative new treatment for young people with a history of depression and anxiety called Mindfulness for Adolescents and Carers (MAC) - a form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) adapted for use with adolescents. Uniquely, it includes a parallel group for the adolescents’ parents or carers. Exeter is one of the key sites in the National Institute for Health and Care Research funded evaluation trial ATTEND which is examining the efficacy of MAC.

With the help of University of Exeter academics, including Dr Rachel Hayes, MAC has been developed for young people who have already had a treatment for depression or anxiety but are not yet fully recovered. MAC’s development  has been influenced by the close involvement of young people, parents, therapists, and researchers, some of whom are now part of the research groups adapting and testing the treatment. This is one example of how Exeter is leading the way on developing better Patient Public Involvement and Engagement (PPIE). At Exeter, PPIE spans the disciplines, incorporating humanities and the arts to find new ways for young people to voice their views.

“There’s now strong evidence that mindfulness is useful within adults, but the evidence base with young people is still very much emerging. In young people, mindfulness is used to try to break those negative patterns of thinking that can lead somebody to become more susceptible to future episodes of depression, and engaging parents is key.”

Dr Rachel Hayes
Senior Research Fellow, Exeter’s Children and Young People’s Mental Health Research Collaboration (ChYMe).

Through adolescence and beyond

Research has shown that most mental health issues emerge between the ages of 12 to 24, meaning university students are a vulnerable group. At Exeter, we have developed research to understand what causes mental health issues in young people and designed new interventions to maintain good mental health. Our researchers are now leading national trials combining the latest research in the field, to make a real difference to the lives of young people. This includes Nurture-U, a collaboration of six universities aiming to create a blueprint for best practice across Higher Education.

Professor Ed Watkins, from the Mood Disorders Centre at the University of Exeter and Nurture-U Chief Investigator, said: “As a university, we’re acutely aware of our responsibilities to the mental health of our students. However, addressing this issue is highly complex and requires a holistic, transdisciplinary, whole-university approach that integrates prevention and stepped care, which Nurture-U seeks to evaluate in detail for the first time.”

Yet many young people who already have a clinical diagnosis still fall through the cracks in the transition from child to adult services for mental health provision. For children and adolescents with ADHD, services stop at 18, and they are often unable to manage the switch to adult specialist healthcare. This can leave them without support at a crucial time in life. Without that support, they often struggle to organise themselves, are much more likely to engage in risky behaviours, and can see grades slip. The UK prison system has a massive proportion of people with ADHD that hasn’t been recognised, treated, or supported properly.

At Exeter, the Mapping ADHD services in Primary Care (MAP) study looks at current practice and provides guidance of how this transition into adult care can be improved. Currently, little is known about how young people with ADHD are supported in primary care, the strengths and weakness of existing care pathways, and how care can be improved. Our team has mapped current services, are co-creating evidence-based guidance, and developing a plan for technology-supported solutions to improve and better co-ordinate primary care for 16 to 25-year-olds with ADHD.

Children running outside

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