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Research into young people’s mental health hopes to stop children ‘falling through the gap’

17 April 2023

Teenage girl sat on sofa

A Cardiff University academic is investigating how young people at risk of developing mental health conditions could be better supported.

More than half of all mental health issues in young people become established by the age of 14, but in many cases, young people could be helped before they reach the need for specialist care.

Effective early intervention is key to helping young people at risk of developing mental health conditions – but what would an effective intervention look like?

That’s the question that Dr Hayley Reed, a research associate at Cardiff University’s Centre for Development, Evaluation, Complexity and Implementation in Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer), hopes to answer through a project looking at supporting adolescent mental health in schools, funded by Health and Care Research Wales.

Dr Reed, based at the School of Social Sciences, said: “About 19% of adolescents in Wales report increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, with this figure believed to have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic, so we know that mental health is a real priority.

“This project seeks to fill a gap where young people are below the threshold of a diagnosable mental health disorder, but still have elevated symptoms.”

This particular group was termed “the missing middle” in Mind Over Matter, a report published by the National Assembly for Wales’ Children, Young People and Education Committee in 2018.

Mind Over Matter recommended introducing a statutory, whole-school approach to mental health as part of a wider strategy bringing health, education and social services together to make support more joined-up and easier to access.

Dr Reed continued: “Since 2018 there has been a focus on adolescent mental health becoming a national priority in Wales. The whole school approach and the new Curriculum for Wales, both introduced in the last few years, have placed more emphasis on health and wellbeing, including mental health, but schools may need support to meet the requirement to deliver targeted provision to those young people with a higher level of need. Teachers may have limited time and mental health expertise to do this themselves, but we can learn from interventions that are having a positive impact in other countries.

“I want to identify what is working elsewhere to improve mental health in secondary school students and whether interventions could be adapted to Wales, to prevent children falling through the gap.”

Dr Reed hopes to secure further funding to help develop and deliver her recommendations, in conjunction with teachers, health professionals and young people themselves. “From my previous work with the Schools Health Research Network, it’s clear that schools want to be part of research linked to mental health and wellbeing. It’s an exciting opportunity to put something in place that will really make a difference to young people’s lives.”