Inside King’s: Tackling young people’s mental health problems

Young women looking thoughtfulPhoto by Jurica Koletić on Unsplash

[This article is from the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of InTouch, your alumni magazine]

The increase in mental health problems among children and young people is a pressing concern in today’s world. But with King’s at the forefront of bringing societal change in mental health, InTouch looks at the university’s leading research, discussions and services that are helping to transform lives.

Many mental health problems, including anxiety, depression and behavioural issues, are diagnosed in childhood and adolescence. In fact one in ten children and young people today have some form of clinically diagnosable mental health disorder, yet only 25% of those diagnosed are receiving appropriate treatment. Tragically, more than one in eight young women have made at least one suicide attempt. The statistics make for an uncomfortable read, proving that strong action needs to be taken now.

King’s research leads the way

Although almost 400,000 children and young people aged 18 and under are in contact with the NHS for mental health problems, services have been drastically cut and will continue to be cut until 2020. But the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London and the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) are leading the global approach to mental health. Within the past year alone, much of King’s pioneering research has made the headlines.

Dr Sally Marlowe

Turning darkness into light

King’s researcher Dr Sally Marlow raised awareness of the issue in her recent four-part documentary for BBC Radio 4, Storm and Stress: New Ways of Looking at Adolescent Mental Health. Dr Marlow explored why the 16-25 age bracket is such a crucial time for mental health, studying environmental, social and biological factors. She found that, although the adolescent brain can be vulnerable to stressful environments, its malleability means it can also learn and rehabilitate through therapy.

By talking with young people who have mental health issues, the documentary looked at what society is currently doing to support them. A visit to the calm room in the Snowsfield Adolescent Unit at the Maudsley Hospital proved how effective the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services can be. One former patient reflected on the importance of being surrounded by other teenagers in similar situations while also being in a safe environment. She is now able to look back at her time at Snowsfield with fondness and even humour. She described her stay there, after being sectioned, as ‘the worst experience ever, turned into the most special time ever’.

Dr Marlow’s research demonstrates how essential mental health services are for rehabilitation, but the process of actually accessing services is letting young people down. She raised this with former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Jeremy Hunt. Mr Hunt admitted pressure could be taken off the workforce by focusing on the prevention of mental health issues. He also said he was working with the Department for Education on how to incorporate mental health into the curriculum.

Dr Tim Matthews

Loneliness among young people

More recent King’s research has highlighted a contemporary problem – the importance of talking about loneliness when discussing mental health among young people. Dr Timothy Matthews, Post-Doctoral Researcher at the IoPPN, found that loneliness was common among young adults, with a quarter of study participants reporting feeling lonely. He also found that lonely young individuals are more than twice as likely to have depression and anxiety than other young people, and they are more likely to self-harm or attempt suicide. They were also more likely to have seen their GP or a counsellor for mental health problems in the past year.

Commenting on the impact of the widespread media coverage that the research received, Dr Matthews said:

‘This is a positive thing in terms of raising awareness of the implications loneliness has on public health, but also in terms of research into finding ways of reducing loneliness in society.’

Professor Louise Arseneault

Continuing the flight for people with mental health problems

King’s research clearly identifies young people’s mental health as an urgent societal issue, and our work has ensured that it’s a prominent talking point in the media and among government figures. But it can’t stop there. Discussing potential next steps on loneliness research, the study’s co-author, Professor Louise Arseneault of the IoPPN, who is also a Mental Health Leadership Fellow for the Economic and Social Research Council, thinks it would be really interesting to follow up by looking into why some people escape loneliness and why other people get stuck in it. She said: ‘It would be valuable to look at the influence of community on people’s experience of loneliness, in trying to find ways to intervene and reduce this feeling of being lonely.’

By focusing even more on early intervention and support in mental health issues for younger people, we can help create a happier and healthier future for the next generation. Expert scientists, clinicians and educators from King’s, the IoPPN and SLaM are already leading the way in approaches to young people’s mental health.

Together, we will continue to develop innovative ways of identifying those at risk and create new interventions to tackle mental health problems at the earliest stages. Our goal is to prevent them before they begin in order to transform young people’s lives.