The Adolescence, Mental Health and Developing Mind initiative is a £35million UK-wide programme funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
The programme runs until 2026 and will explore how mental health needs emerge in young people, what makes some more resilient or vulnerable than others, and how we can promote positive mental health and wellbeing by intervening early.
The United Kingdom is currently living through a crisis in child and adolescent mental health, with rates of probable mental disorders having doubled since 2017 and remaining at elevated levels since the Covid-19 pandemic. The system of support for children and young people is struggling to meet this increasing need, from universal services, to record waiting lists and increasing numbers of children and young people not meeting the criteria for specialist services.
The risk of poor mental health is not equally distributed amongst young people, and certain groups are at heightened risk of developing mental health problems. This includes those who have experienced trauma, those with Special Educational Needs and/or disabilities, and those with other protected characteristics. Rigorous, evidence-based and multidisciplinary research into adolescent mental health is more vital than ever if we are to collectively address the scale of this challenge.
The Programme consists of 7 individual projects focusing on adolescent mental health in a specific target group known to be at higher risk of developing mental health problems. NCB will be working with the 7 project teams until 2026 to help ensure that the learnings from these projects have an impact on policy and practice, and ultimately improve the system of support for young people with mental health needs. We will link emerging findings with practitioners, key organisations working with the target groups, and policymakers to facilitate the rapid translation of evidence synthesis into emerging policy issues.
To mark World Mental Health Day, Gill Attrill - Director of the UKRI Adolescence, Mental Health and Developing Mind initiative - shares her thoughts on how the programme is exploring how mental health needs emerge in young people, what makes some more resilient or vulnerable than others, and how we can promote positive mental health and wellbeing by intervening early.
The projects are outlined below.
ATTUNE: Understanding mechanisms and mental health impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences to co-design preventative arts and digital interventions
The University of Oxford and Falmouth University
Principal Investigators: Professor Kamaldeep Bhui and Professor Eunice Ma
Children and young people who experience multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are at heightened risk of developing mental health needs in late adolescence and adulthood. However, why some young people develop mental health needs after suffering numerous ACEs, and others do not, is not well understood and results in many young people not receiving the more effective support.
This project will produce evidence on the psychological and geo-socioeconomic factors that can make young people aged 10-24 more vulnerable to, or protected from, harm after experiencing ACEs, and what interventions are most effective for these young people. The project will generate lived experience data, shared by young people through creative arts practices, and combine this with secondary analysis of large cohorts to address knowledge gaps in this area. Experience based co-design will be used to co-create a public health resource and a serious game. Young people are actively involved in every aspect of the project, evaluating their experiences of participation and producing films and animations about their experiences.
Read more about ATTUNE.
Digital Youth: Adolescent Mental Health and Development in the Digital World
The University of Nottingham
Principal Investigators: Professor Chris Hollis and Professor Ellen Townsend
The digital world, perhaps the biggest change to human culture since the industrial revolution, presents both opportunities and risks for young people’s development, mental health and wellbeing, and involves all aspects of their lives. At present no single academic discipline or organisation has the breadth and capacity to coordinate research and policy in this area.
Digital Youth, an interdisciplinary programme bringing together world-leading researchers from the Universities of Nottingham, Auckland, Bath, Glasgow, Kings College London, LSE, UCL and the Open University, is co-produced and co-designed with our young person’s advisory group Sprouting Minds and is at the forefront of these developments.
The Digital Youth team is working to find practical solutions through understanding the complex risks and opportunities for mental health associated with young people’s engagement with the digital world with the aim of generating new preventative and therapeutic interventions.
The vision is to harness the potential of digital technology to transform young people’s mental health and wellbeing and provide a safe, and supportive, digital environment to tackle the growing humanitarian crisis of unmet need arising from mental health disorders in young people aged 10-24 years old.
Read more about Digital Youth.
EDIFY: Eating disorders: delineating illness and recovery trajectories to inform personalised prevention and early intervention in young people
King’s College London and University of Edinburgh
Principal Investigators: Professor Ulrike Schmidt and Dr Helen Sharpe
More young people from all backgrounds, genders and identities are receiving treatment for an eating disorder than ever before. However, current treatments are not effective for everyone and are not tailored to individual illness stages or circumstances.
This project aims to understand the different ways in which young people develop eating disorders and what things promote recovery. It will explore how we can characterise illness stages in eating disorders, distinguishing between ‘at-risk’, ‘early’, and ‘late’ stage difficulties, and tailor interventions appropriately. The project uses a range of methods, from arts-based workshops, through to data analytics and neuroimaging, all in partnership with a youth advisory panel of young people with lived experience of eating disorders.
Read more about EDIFY.
NURTURE-U: Developing and evaluating a stepped change whole-university approach for student wellbeing and mental health
University of Exeter
Principal Investigator: Professor Edward Watkins
Rates of mental health conditions in university students are rising with a third of students saying that their mental health has worsened since entering higher education and universities are reporting increasing demand for mental health support services that exceed their capacity to provide support, and evidence-based resources are not widely available.
This project will develop and pilot a whole university approach to mental health and wellbeing. In partnership with students, university leaders and researchers, the project will test the effectiveness of a whole-university approach with a sample population of over 120,000 students.
Read more about NURTURE-U.
RE-SET: Developing a school-based, transdiagnostic, preventative intervention for adolescent mental health
University College London
Principal Investigators: Professor Essi Viding and Professor Pasco Fearon
How young people process emotions and how they develop social relationships are both influential factors on their mental health but have traditionally been looked at separately and interventions often focus on one or the other.
This project will explore the ways that adolescents interpret others’ emotions, manage their own emotions, and challenges they may have in their social relationships. By looking at the relationship between emotions and social relationships it will develop a new school-based intervention to prevent exacerbation of mental health problems in adolescents with elevated symptomatology (top quartile) as based on general mental health screening. The intervention will address the links between emotions and social relationships. Young people play a key role within the project influencing the content of the intervention to make it engaging and relevant for the age group. Young people will also participate in dissemination activities including developing short films, podcasts and infographics to educate others about the science of adolescent mental health, and give practical tips to help them understand emotions and social relationships.
Read more about RE-SET.
RE-STAR: Regulating Emotions – Strengthening Adolescent Resilience
King’s College London
Principal Investigator: Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke
Evidence suggests that autistic adolescents, and those with ADHD, are more likely than their neurotypical peers to develop depression by late adolescence. However, we currently don’t understand why this is the case.
RE-STAR is a multi-disciplinary collective of academic researchers, young neurodivergent people and stakeholder practitioners. Together we are systematically exploring the links between neurodivergent individuals’ experiences of, and responses to, adverse emotional events and settings in school, and their emergent risk of depression. Our goal is to use the information we gather to develop schools-based interventions to provide advice, support and strategies to modulate these experiences and cut depression risk in neurodivergent adolescents – interventions that could operate at the level of the whole school, the classroom or the individual.
Read more about RE-STAR.
RE-THINK: The shaping of mental health and the mechanisms of leading to (un)successful transitions for care-experienced young people
University of Sussex and University College London
Principal Investigators: Prof Lisa Holmes and Prof Rachel Hiller
Care-experienced young people have far higher rates of mental health difficulties than their non-care-experienced peers. The failure to adequately support these difficulties has been linked to the higher rates of school exclusion, homelessness and unemployment also experienced by this group. But these outcomes are not inevitable – with the right support care-experienced young people can thrive.
This research will explore different processes that might drive mental health and wellbeing for care-experienced young people, and what good support looks-like, so that we can understand why some young people struggle more or less and how to provide better help. They are particularly interested in two key transitions: moving into and through early secondary school and into emerging adulthood. The investigators will work closely with care-experienced young people, including panels of young people in care and care-leavers and young people who were adopted, and paid care-leaver research internships, to shape the research and ensure findings get to where they are most needed.
If you would like further information about any of the projects that make up this programme and to be kept informed of key developments and emerging findings, please contact Adam Borthwick via [email protected].