A significant research project which aims to increase and enhance access and support for mental health among young people in the UK has been awarded £1.2 million in funding from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR).

Led by clinical psychologist at the University of Bath, Dr Maria Loades, the NIHR fellowship will run for five years from 2023 to 2028. During that time, the research team will create a free, fully accessible website offering evidence-based self-help wellbeing support.

Unlike many existing wellbeing apps which users subscribe to and are encouraged to login regularly to derive benefit, the online resources tested through this project are intentionally designed to be completed as stand-alone single session interventions. A suite of these interventions have already been developed in the USA, aiming to help users get back on track when their mood is low.

An example of a single session intervention from this suite is based on behavioural activation. By working through a series of empowering activities, users are encouraged to recognise what matters to them and makes them feel better in their lives. From there, they are encouraged to find routes to do more of that. This could be exercise, socialising or many other activities. The intervention is a component of more extensive cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The website built to host these single session interventions will be completely free to use and advertised to teenagers through social media, including Instagram and TikTok. A side-line project will focus on an additional single session intervention offering support and guidance for parents of teenagers who are struggling with their mental health.

Dr Maria Loades believes the single session interventions can have real impact at a time when young people’s mental health appears to be worsening and access to face-to-face support via the NHS is much harder to come by. Current estimates suggest that around one in 10 young people meets the criteria for depression, and one in three have at least some symptoms of depression, which get in the way of them living their lives to the fullest.

During the pandemic Dr Loades led research looking at the mental health toll lockdowns had placed on young people. In June 2020, her research into the long-term impact of loneliness and its links to depression attracted headlines around the world.

Commenting on the funding award Dr Loades said: “Against rising incidence rates for mental health in young people there is a huge gap between need and access to help and support. Many young people feel unable to ask for help when experiencing depressive symptoms and families often don’t know where to turn. This is particularly true for excluded groups who are also more likely to experience depression.

“Both not knowing what help is available and the stigma surrounding mental health can prevent or delay help-seeking. Even when people do ask for help, adolescents must wait to access it because services prioritise those who are most severely ill. Through this ambitious project we want to make psychological treatment available on demand and anonymously, thus boosting the provision of early help for depression symptoms.

“By finding new ways to increase access and improve support, we believe this can lead to much better outcomes for young people and their families.”

The project will also include two brand-new fully funded PhD places supervised by Maria Loades. One will be funded via NIHR, the other match-funded by the University of Bath.

Professor Julie Barnett, Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Bath, added: “The challenges of adolescent mental health post-pandemic are well documented, but this project offers a clear way forward and a means to enhance and improve young people’s wellbeing and mental resilience by building on our research strengths in this area. My congratulations to Dr Loades and her team on this successful award which significantly enhances the research portfolio of our Department of Psychology.”

Professor Deborah Wilson, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences, added: “This is a tremendous accolade for Dr Loades and a real endorsement for the work she is doing in increasing and enhancing access and support to improve young people’s mental health. With young people’s mental health increasingly in the spotlight as an issue, it’s something many of us may have direct experience of responding to or in supporting. As Dean for the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences it is particularly rewarding to see how our researchers at Bath are applying their expertise in ways that can make a real, tangible difference to people’s lives.”

Read more from Dr Loades on the challenges young people are facing post-pandemic in terms of their mental health via this recent Conversation article.