Using Big Data to Understand Mental Health in Young People

Published on: 9th May 2017

1 in 4 people, according to the National Institute for Health Research, are affected by mental illness each year. 75% of those with a mental health condition start developing it before the age of 18; with 1 in 10 young people will experience a mental health problem – which can include depression and anxiety.

Mental Health Awareness Week provides an opportunity to highlight the important role that research has on tackling mental health in young people. Through research we can understand mental health better and find ways to prevent and appropriately treat mental health early on. Researchers at the Farr Centre at Swansea University are working to understand and improve the lives of young people with mental health conditions.

There are growing concerns about the number of children being prescribed antidepressants. A team of researchers led by Professor Ann John, Professor of Public Health and Psychiatry at Farr, conducted a study on antidepressant prescribing amongst children and young people. The team looked at data from 358,000 registered patients between 6 and 18 years old, living in Wales between 2003 and 2013. The data was drawn from GPs and other NHS primary care services.

The research found that:

  • Antidepressant prescribing rose significantly, by 28%, mainly in older adolescents.
  • Depression diagnoses showed a steady decline by just over a quarter, while symptoms of depression more than doubled.
  • Unlicensed citalopram prescribing occurs outside current guidelines, despite its known toxicity in overdose.
  • Just over half of new antidepressant prescriptions were associated with depression. The rest were associated with diagnoses such as anxiety and pain.

Professor Ann John said: ‘These findings add to the growing debate over increasing prescribing of anti-depressants to children and young people. The main issue is whether they being prescribed appropriately. However, it’s worth remembering that there has been historical under- treatment of mental disorders in young people. It’s important that each individual young person is listened to and gets the right kind of help for their problem. ‘

‘We need to ensure GPs are trained to really understand the lives and moods of young people, as well as knowing what warning signs they should look out for. For some young people reassurance that this is within the range of normal human experience may be appropriate. For others, talking therapies may be the best option, as they have a proven track record of improving symptoms for those with mild and moderate depression.
In more serious cases, anti-depressants should be used together with talking therapies. They do work. Improving access to talking therapies is very important.’

The team’s research findings have led to a call for new strategies to implement current guidance for managing prescribing and treatment for depression in children and young people.

The HAPPEN project, led by Professor Sinead Brophy at Farr and the National Centre for Population Health and Wellbeing Research, focuses on the health and wellbeing of young children and explores early interventions. According to the Mental Health Institution, 70% of children and young people who experience mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.

HAPPEN is a network of health, education and research professionals aimed at improving the health, wellbeing and education outcomes of primary school children aged 9-11 years in Swansea.

3,500 pupils provided data on: sleep, concentration, physical activity, nutrition and well-being. The data was then linked anonymously to GP records, hospital admissions and educational achievement. Farr Institute researchers studied this data and reports were compiled to feed back to the schools, and organisations (dieticians, sport development, local charities, and public health professionals).

The team has recently introduced the ‘Me and My Feelings’ questionnaire, which aims to measure the wellbeing and mental health of the children.

Professor Sinead Brophy said; ‘This research aims to improve our understanding of child mental health difficulties, explore the effectiveness of school based interventions and provide an insight into the relationships between health, wellbeing and education outcomes.

The project offers advice and support to schools via a host of resources which they can access to improve health and wellbeing interventions and ensure curriculum needs are also being met. The use of consultation, engagement and collaboration has enabled the network’s success to date and the number of schools joining and the data collected for our research is continuing to grow.’

Professor Ronan Lyons, Director of the Farr Centre at Swansea University, said: “The research, being carried out by our researchers illustrates how mental health research, diagnosis, and treatment can benefit from using big data. This work contributes to the debate on how we can improve mental health treatment and services for young people. Lessons learnt from such research have the potential to have UK wide and global implications.”

The Farr Institute is a UK-wide research collaboration involving academic institutions and health partners in England, Scotland and Wales. The Farr Institute analyses data to better understand the health of patients and populations. For further information on The Farr Institute and the work of the Farr Researchers visit: www.farrinstitute.org

Enquiries to Sarah Toomey, Communications Officer, Farr Centre at Swansea University, s.toomey@swansea.ac.uk

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