Outlined here are three potential ways of improving the future of mental health services and treatment for adolescents that go beyond the matter of funding. Of course, funding is essential for adolescent mental health. Investing money into mental health services for adolescents is an investment in their quality of life, and surely a nation’s moral compass can be judged by how it treats its vulnerable citizens. But beyond funding itself, we must consider where exactly the funding should be allocated. Simply throwing money at a problem doesn’t fix it, and there is most certainly a problem that needs to be fixed.

According to the Office of National Statistics, 1 in 10 young people aged between 5 and 16 have a diagnosable mental health issue[1], while the Children’s Society tells us that 70% of those children experiencing mental health issues have not been able to get access to suitable interventions at an appropriate age.[2] We also know from the World Health Organisation that 1 in 5 adolescents ‘may experience a mental health problem in any given year[3]’, and that 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24.[4]

How, then, can we reshape our approach to adolescent mental health and give our young people the best chance at living a better quality of life?

The Importance of Branding

One approach with much potential for positive change is to look at how we brand our mental health services. Generation gaps grow wider with the rise of new technology and ease of access to information and global communication, and while there are negatives here in that younger people often have unsupervised access to inappropriate and graphic content, there is also greater access to positive and life-affirming health resources. Branding services and charities in a way that connects with young people then is an important effort we can make in increasing the volume of the conversation about mental health among young people. Mental health advocacy for our younger citizens works best when it comes from channels and voices that they are familiar with, that they are connected with, and that they like. Therefore, mental health services and charities would do well in incorporating as many teenagers and young adults as possible in their research and advocacy. When school students are talking about their opinion on mental health service X and how it differs from mental health service Y, the conversation will be moving fast in the right direction.

Framing and Education

The conversation about mental health often gets blurred and confused with the topic of mental illness. In order to clarify the difference and reframe how we perceive both, it’s worth looking at the education system and how it provides such information. Physical Education is a compulsory subject in schools that concerns good physical health, and is not a topic that is confused with physical illness. Nonetheless, poor maintenance of one’s physical health can lead to physical illness, hence the importance of Physical Education. Surely then there needs to be a call for compulsory Mental Health Education. Though mental health and mental illness are different, poor maintenance of the former leads to the development of the latter.

Bringing this type of education into schools has been proven to have a positive impact, yet challenges still present themselves. For example, in Australia, funding for mental health and mental illness education programs was made contingent on evaluation reports, which aimed to identify their efficacy and promote greater evaluation procedures, of which there were few to none. An independent, objective evaluation of school based mental health and illness programs was commissioned by the Mental Illness Education program in the Australian Capital Territory (MIE-ACT).[5]

As part of the program, school students attended presentations that lasted from 50-90 minutes, during which information was provided on stigma and the myths surrounding mental illness, as well as prevalence, symptoms, and causes of conditions, and services and resources available. Furthermore, presenters, who were chosen based on their experiences of directly experiencing mental health issues or illnesses, or who had been indirectly affected by caring for someone with a mental illness, offered to students their personal stories and experiences. This served to actively engage students in the conversation and deliver messages that served to destigmatize mental illness, showing that recovery is possible and that those who are affected are normal people with a health condition that, just like any other, needs to be treated effectively.

Based on the MIE-ACT program, a questionnaire was provided to students and showed that ‘the program had a strong impact on increasing knowledge and a moderate impact on reducing stigma, but a weak impact on changing help-seeking intentions.[6]

Based on Australia’s example, we can see how mental health promotion programs in schools serve to provide greater knowledge of mental health and somewhat reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, but when it comes to encouraging the seeking of professional help, these programs aren’t always successful.

Research has shown that 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14, and that a staggering 75% of problems present themselves by age 24.[7] It is essential, then, that younger people have the awareness and resources available to seek professional help at an early age, as early intervention and prevention is the best form of curing or managing any given condition.

Recognition

The final method outlined here in tailoring our approach to adolescent mental health services is fostering a greater awareness and recognition of adolescence itself. The transition from adolescence to adulthood does not happen overnight, and just like puberty, mental illness or other health issues can develop or subside at different stages depending on the individual. In the UK, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), which aim to target a wide range of presenting issues in young people, only works with young people up to the age of 18, and some services even stop at the age of 16, after which an individual will need to be referred to adult mental health services.[8] Rates of development vary greatly from person to person, so an exact age limit on one’s ability to avail of suitable and appropriate services is not helpful in effective intervention.

In Conclusion

Overall, the approaches to mental health and illness support and intervention mentioned in this article should, in theory, promote greater awareness of adolescent needs and encourage effective action in the reduction and prevention of the onset of mental illness in young people. This is a serious matter that needs as much attention and focus as possible. In 2018 alone, there were over 6500 deaths in the form of suicide in the UK.[9] While suicide itself is not a mental health problem, it is often result of a mental health issue or an accumulation of unresolved issues. In raising awareness and delivering greater education on mental health and creating wider and easier access to mental health services from a young age, we can hope that these numbers are reduced over time.