Young people with mental health problems who have contact with mental health services are significantly less likely to suffer from clinical depression later in their adolescence, according to new research.
The study, published in Lancet Psychiatry, found that 14-year-olds who had contact with mental health services had a greater decrease in depressive symptoms than those with similar difficulties, but who had no contact, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge.
By the age of 17, the odds of reporting clinical depression were more than seven times higher in individuals without contact than in those who did access mental health services, the study found.
Researchers from the university’s Department of Psychiatry recruited 1,238 14-year-olds and their primary caregivers from secondary schools in Cambridgeshire, and followed them up at the age of 17. Their mental state and behavior was assessed by trained researchers, while the teenagers self-reported their depressive symptoms.
Of the participants, 126 (11 percent) had a current mental illness at the start of the study. Only 48 (38 percent) had contact with mental health services in the year prior to being recruited for the study.
The researchers discovered that contact with mental health services appeared to be of such value that, after three years, the levels of depressive symptoms of those teens were similar to those of 996 unaffected individuals.
“Mental illness can be a terrible burden on individuals, but our study shows clearly that if we intervene at an early stage, we can see potentially dramatic improvements in adolescents’ symptoms of depression and reduce the risk that they go on to develop severe depressive illness,” said Dr. Sharon Neufeld, first author of the study and a research associate at the university.
The study is believed to be the first in adolescents to support the role of contact with mental health services in improving mental health by late adolescence. Previous studies have reported that mental health service use has provided little or no benefit to adolescents, but the Cambridge researchers argue that this may be because the design of those studies did not consider whether service users had a mental disorder or not.
The approach taken on this new study enabled it to compare as closely as possible teens with mental health disorders who received treatment and those who did not.
The researchers add the study highlights the need to improve access to mental health services for children and adolescents. Figures published in 2015 show that National Health Service spending on children’s mental health services in the UK has fallen by 5.4 percent since 2010, despite an increase in demand. This has led to an increase in referrals and waiting times and an increase in severe cases that require longer stays in inpatient facilities, the researchers noted.
Earlier this year, the Prime Minister announced measures to improve mental health support at every stage of a person’s life, with an emphasis on early intervention for children and young people.
“The emphasis going forward should be on early detection and intervention to help mentally-ill teens in schools, where there is now an evidence base for psychosocial intervention,” said Professor Ian Goodyer, who led the study. “We need to ensure, however, that there is a clear pathway for training and supervision of school-based psychological workers and strong connections to NHS child and adolescent mental health services for those teens who will need additional help.
“As always, the devil is in the detail,” he continued. “The funding of services and how the effectiveness of intervention is monitored will be critical if we are to reduce mental illness risks over the adolescent years. With the right measures and school-based community infrastructure, I believe this can be achieved.”