A mental health crisis
The number of young people suffering from an episode of anxiety and depression each year in the UK is 200,000 and growing. And more than half of all adolescent suicides are linked to depression, making it a leading cause of death for this age group.
The mental health crisis affecting young people in the UK shows no sign of slowing down with the global pandemic only adding to the problem. Studies show that with every lockdown, young people found it increasingly more difficult to cope. Many reported that they were deeply anxious, started self-harming again, having panic attacks, or losing motivation and hope for the future.
In 2020, Barts Charity awarded a grant of £2.8 million to the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London, to establish the Youth Resilience Unit (YRU) in the London Borough of Newham. East London has the youngest population in the UK and Newham has some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country. The area also has a large BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) population which are disproportionally affected by poor mental health.
This unit is the first of its kind in the UK and is set to become a world-leading centre of excellence. Despite the pressures of the pandemic, the unit was opened in March 2021.
The aim of the Unit is to undertake research to better understand how equipping young people (aged between 15 and 24) with tools and resources, can prevent and overcome depression and anxiety, thereby reducing the risks of self-harm and hospitalisation. This is called resilience.
Existing services limited
The Unit’s research is addressing a vital gap in youth mental healthcare which to date has been overly focussed on the underlying causes of mental illness resulting in limited opportunities for developing new interventions.
75% of all mental health conditions develop before 18 years of age and only 26% of all mental health research funding is spent on studies of young people. 45,000 youth in Newham were surveyed and the responses showed more than 10,000 young people suffer from an episode of anxiety and depression every year.
Across the country, funding pressures on local services are being felt more than ever with 9 in 10 councils being forced to overspend children’s social care budgets and others forced to reduce or end services altogether.
The already thinly stretched mental health pathway for young people has seen a drastic reduction of capacity since the Covid-19 crisis, with existing services in school and local community settings severely limited.
A radical new approach
The study at the heart of this project will build on the success of the Unit for Social and Community Psychiatry (USCP) at Queen Mary University of London, by using the existing research into the resilience of young people in Latin American urban neighbourhoods, addressing the reasons why some young people are better equipped to overcome mental distress than others.
The USCP is led by Professor Stefan Priebe, Professor of Social and Community Psychiatry at The Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London.
Professor Priebe said: “We need a radical new approach to the growing mental health crisis in young people. Investment in the Youth Resilience Unit will produce the highest calibre of research to help young people overcome depression and anxiety in East London and across the globe. We are delighted that Barts Charity has invested in our project which will in some way address the significant health inequalities that exist in East London for young people.”
Paving the way for improved mental health
Many young people with anxiety or depression will be able to avoid psychotherapy and/or medication by being equipped with coping mechanisms and social prescribing (a holistic approach to healthcare that brings together the social and medical models of health and wellness) which will stop them ever becoming a mental health patient in the first place.
The Unit will pave the way for improved mental health among young people in East London and a reduction in the likelihood of young people carrying forward mental health issues into adulthood. Preventing the development of mental illness will also have an impact on the physical health of our population and overcoming episodes of anxiety and depression in early life will reduce the risks of future physical ill health.