What are the key issues for research and intervention in the field of youth mental health? And how might the digital environment play into this?

Towards the end of 2018 UK Research and Innovation announced £8m funding for eight new multidisciplinary networks ‘to bring researchers, charities and other organisations together to address important mental health research questions.’ We were excited to win funding for the Nurture Network, specifically designed to promote young people’s mental health in a digital world. On 17th April 2019, the @UKRI #mentalhealthnetworks were launched at a day designed to foster effective networking across disciplines, sectors and specialism.

Most of the networks include an interest in young people, for whom one in eight have a diagnosable mental health problem and, as the Emerging Minds network observes, only a minority of those who need it gain access to professional support or treatment.

It was also apparent across each of the presentations that one area of common interest and potential for future collaboration is a digital dimension to each network’s focus on improving mental health outcomes

The Violence, Abuse and Mental Health network observed that people with mental health problems are disproportionately likely to have experienced domestic or sexual violence, or witnessed parental violence as a child. Among other questions, it asks whether and “how new digital technologies are changing people’s experiences of abuse and how this impacts on mental health.”

The SMARTen network focuses on mental illness among higher education students, certainly a highly digitally-active group, asking what works, what should be done? And the Closing the Gap network focuses on people with severe mental illness, again asking about the potential of digital technologies to improve, in this case, their physical health.

From the Loneliness network we learned that 16-24 year olds experience ‘peak loneliness’ but that, despite recent publicity, not enough evidence exists to understand either the causes or solutions. This network will explore, among others, the question of whether digital ways of connecting may alleviate loneliness for some – a question that surely arises for the other networks too.

While mental health problems are often thought of as primarily affecting individuals, the MARCH network is examining the role of social, cultural and community assets in mental health. These are defined as including the arts, culture, heritage sites, libraries, green spaces, community centres, social clubs, community associations and volunteer groups. Although not discussed explicitly, presumably many of these will have a digital presence, raising interesting questions about the nature of digital assets for mental health or, perhaps, digital environments function as impediments or barriers to mental health, as is widely supposed.

Relatedly, in focusing specifically on youth mental health the Triumph network recognises that although mental illness is experienced individually, the causes often lie in the broader socio-economic and cultural contexts of young people’s lives. These especially concern the role of peers and social networks, schools and alternative educational settings, and the network includes attention to a range of vulnerable populations.

 As the Nurture Network argues, all of these social relationships and settings are, to some degree, being reconfigured in the digital age, with digital networks playing a mediating role – for better or for worse, in ways yet to be researched. Thus in our work we will ask:

-          What new practice models are required to promote effective interventions and positive mental health trajectories for youth?

-          How does the digital environment intersect with traditional influences on children – family, school, peers?

-          How could the design and deployment of digital platforms and interventions better promote youth mental health in the UK?

-          How do we equip parents, teachers, practitioners, policy makers and youth themselves with information, support and resources that promote positive mental health in a contemporary (and future) digital age?

Overall, the eight mental health networks plan to engage with the digital environment in at least four distinct ways:

-          Asking how uses of digital technologies may mediate or exacerbate mental health problems

-          Asking how uses of digital technologies may enable more efficient or scalable or confidential mental health tools

-          Working with private sector, whether in either analysing problematic uses or features of technology or in building digital tools

-          Facing the ethical, commercial and privacy issues that arise in building public or third sector solutions

However, there was not much time in the packed day to unpack the digital dimension of today’s mental health problems. Digital technologies have their own affordances – persistence, replicability, scalability and searchability. Where more research is greatly needed, I suggest, is in understanding how these contribute to reconfiguring the problems and solutions regarding young people’s mental health.

Equally important is recognising that these affordances do not come out of thin air, and nor are they inevitably baked into the nature of technology. Rather, they are the result of complex networked infrastructures invented and implemented by people working under huge pressure and at speed in, largely, commercial institutions with global ambitions. That means the needs of vulnerable young people may come very low down in their list of priorities. How far researchers, clinicians and other practitioners can wrest back control to ensure digital networks meet the best interests of young people is as yet unknown, though surely a struggle worth the effort.

by Sonia Livingstone, LSE

enurture network