Young people are experiencing a mental health crisis of unprecedented proportions. 1 in 10 of them have a diagnosable mental health condition, which equates to 850,000 across the UK. Self-harm in children and teenagers has sky rocketed and over the past ten years we have seen a 68% increase in the number of young people being hospitalised for self-harm.
With these frightening statistics in mind, and with more than half of adults with mental illnesses being diagnosed in childhood, the need for research into child and adolescent mental health has never been more urgent. What factors make a child vulnerable to mental illness and what factors form a protective barrier against it? If we can start to answer some of these questions then perhaps we can stop the ticking time bomb waiting to explode in our young people.
On the 17th September I attended the launch of the REACH study at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning in Herne Hill. REACH is a study which is seeking to answer the pertinent question of which factors influence risk and resilience to mental health issues in teens and gain further insight into the extent and persistent of mental illness in this age group.
Why is the study so important? Because if we don't do it, our kids and teenagers will grow up into mentally unhealthy and unhappy adults who may struggle to lead happy, fulfilled lives. At the moment, mental illness costs the UK economy £105.2 billion a year, which could be set to rise if we do not tackle the crisis head-on.
Hosted by the REACH research team at KCL, the aim of the launch event was simple: bring together members of the local community to discuss teenage mental health and learn more about how to keep themselves mentally healthy. The event was free and open to all: mental health professionals, education and childcare professionals, students, local schools and community groups and of course people like me who have a history of mental illness. The diversity of people in the room is what made the atmosphere so eclectic. Everybody had an opinion or an experience of mental illness in teens: from Nick Heard, the Vice Principal of Lambeth Academy who said "Any teacher in the land would tell you that there is a mental health need in schools but we can't get the help we need" to a local bishop who talked about the impact of food poverty on children's wellbeing. From the researchers, to the delegates to the young people there from a local youth club one thing was clear: we need more research into children's mental health and we need it now.
We heard more about the study itself and for the first time in ages I felt truly hopeful that we may be on the edge of something powerful enough to alter the current path of youth mental health. The REACH team from KCL are going to administer a survey to 4000 secondary school students, then follow them up 1 and 2 years later to find out about their mental health. 600 of these students will then be randomly selected for a more detailed interview and some tasks to provide greater insight into their wellbeing. The study will take 5 years altogether but longitudinal research is hugely beneficial when you are working to study multiple factors and the incidence of illness over time.
As somebody who was hospitalised for mental health problems and lost a lot of their teenage years to anorexia and depression I was fascinated to hear from service user Tilda Simpson about her own similar experiences at the launch event. And I am sure, that like her I am eager to hear the results of the REACH study and the implications it could have for making the future generation happier, healthier and more successful in the long-term.
Photos courtesy of Yuebi Yang: http://www.yuebiyang.com/
Visual artwork by Debbie Roberts at Engage Visually: http://www.engagevisually.co.uk/