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BrainWaves researchers publish new ‘roadmap’ for youth mental health

BrainWaves Principal Investigator Professor Mina Fazel and Postdoctoral Researcher Dr Emma Soneson have just published a new article in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry’s Special Issue on Innovation in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Interventions.

Professor Fazel and Dr Soneson presented a comprehensive summary of what we know about public mental health interventions, referring to interventions used at a population level – such as in schools – to promote good mental health and prevent the onset of mental illness. They also shared their insights as to where the field is going and what is needed to address key modern challenges for today’s youth.

The pair encountered their first challenge early on in the process, namely in terms how they should define and think about these types of interventions. They concluded that the existing frameworks for understanding interventions in this area had some limitations, which led them to present a new model in the article.

“We realised that to do this topic justice, we had to develop a framework that captured the full complexity of child and adolescent mental health,” says Prof Fazel. “This led us to present a framework that maps the different influences in the lives of developing children and adolescents. We chose to focus on the interactions between these different influences and how research needs to incorporate such interactions.”

They termed their framework the ‘Interactional schema of child and adolescent public mental health’. The schema, pictured below, outlines three main ‘systems’: the interpersonal system (comprising relationships with individuals such as family members and friends), the community system (comprising environmental factors such as the local neighbourhood), and the institutional system (comprising institutions ranging from health and social care to government). Schools – the cornerstone of BrainWaves’ research – are situated at the centre of these three overlapping systems.

 

Diagram

Prof Fazel and Dr Soneson used this schema as a framework for summarising the scientific evidence for existing interventions. As they trawled through hundreds of interventions, they came to a somewhat disappointing conclusion: that although there were so many interventions, there was no indication that any particular intervention or approach could lead to substantial, sustained improvements in mental health outcomes for children and adolescents.

With this in mind, the two authors decided to conclude their paper with recommendations for how to move the field forward, saying in the article that ‘there is an opportunity to re-think how public mental health interventions are designed, evaluated and implemented’. Their recommendations include embracing this complex and interesting challenge through thoughtful measurement, increased emphasis on the interpersonal and environmental influences on child and adolescent mental health, more tailored intervention design and evaluation, and, crucially, incorporation of the youth voice in research and practice.

BrainWaves – with its interdisciplinary approach, close partnerships with schools, and collaborations with young people – has an important opportunity to embrace these recommendations throughout all aspects of the study.

“Whilst our article demonstrated that there is a substantial amount of high-quality research happening in this field, it’s clear that innovation is desperately needed in order to have a real impact on child and adolescent mental health,” says Dr Soneson. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how BrainWaves develops in the coming years and rises to meet these challenges.”

This article was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry’s December 2023 Special Issue on Innovations in Child and Adolescent Public Mental Health. You can access it for free here.