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Research Can Help Us Reverse The Crisis In Young People's Mental Health

20/10/2016 13:40

Last week, celebrities, charities and the public shouted from the rooftops about perilous state of our young people's mental health for World Mental Health Day . A rallying cry for more to be done to tackle stigma and change the outlook for millions of young people sounded out across the media and online.

We know that a quarter of a million children are now receiving mental healthcare in England. That seven in ten nurses describing young people's mental healthcare as inadequate. And that mental illness is soaring in young women.

Professor Dame Sue Bailey, the chair of the Children and Young People's Mental Health Coalition, summed up the potential long-term impact of this gathering storm by suggesting the UK should brace itself for a 'tsunami' of adults with mental health problems, unless urgent action is taken to help today's children.

But what action? Recent government funding pledges to improve mental health services for children and young people are clearly welcome - and vital. But if we want this funding to deliver the much needed improvements, then we must also invest in deepening our understanding for the future.

This will require a concentrated and continuous focus on mental health research. We need research that explains how mental health problems develop, identifies which young people are most at risk and leads to the development of treatments and interventions designed for younger patients.

The new analysis released by MQ this week found that research funding in the UK is currently just £8 per person affected by mental illness each year, 22 times less than the equivalent figure for cancer research and 14 times less than the figure for dementia research.

Findings revealed not only a huge gap in funding for mental health research, but a failure to focus anything like proportionate attention on studying mental illness in young people. Just 25% of research funding goes towards studies into children and young people, despite evidence that 75% per cent of mental illnesses begin before the age of 18.

As the constant flow of alarming news stories suggests, the impact of this lack of attention is profound, both immediately and in the longer term. Too many young people must face a mental health issue alone, confused, scared and isolated. And the consequences of developing a mental health problem when young can last a lifetime, with a huge impact on education, employment and social development.

As things stand, our methods of identifying mental health conditions remain imprecise, meaning many young people are forced to wait up to a decade for an accurate understanding of their condition. Treatments and interventions, which in some cases have barely changed for 30 years, are too often ineffective. Promising non-traditional interventions, such as in schools, lack an evidence base to get them implemented.

Research holds the key to transforming this parlous situation. MQ has launched a major new research programme, bringing together world-leading scientists and clinicians with people with experience of mental illness to focus on the early signs of mental illness. The programme will also promote the development of an evidence base for supporting young people, as well as creating a UK-led global network for young people's mental health research.

The mental health status quo has been accepted for too long, but this inaction is failing the next generation and will continue to do so. Only by acknowledging and prioritising the critical role of research can we see the progress in mental healthcare that our young people so desperately need.

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