Published: 13-07-2017 14:36 | Updated: 24-07-2017 08:35

Research is the key to a better mental health among young people

Universities have an important role to play in combating the increase in mental ill-health among children and adolescents. More resources should be devoted to research in this field. These are the views of many of the participants at the seminar that KI organised in Almedalen.

“The incidence of self-reported mental ill-health among boys and girls has doubled over the past 30 years. In addition, the suicide rate is not decreasing among young people as it is in all the other age groups”, said Magnus Jägerskog, Secretary General of Bris, Children’s Rights in Society.

He presented a new report on mental ill-health among children, produced in collaboration with Sven Bremberg, researcher at the Department of Public Health, Karolinska Institutet. However, the cause of this increase in mental ill-health among children is unclear, with more research needed in order to find answers. Magnus Jägerskog argued that society has fallen short, and continues to fall short, when it comes to supporting children and adolescents.

“According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has now also become law, children have a right to have their voices heard in matters which concern them. But when children describe their perceptions of healthcare, we see a number of problems”, he said.

He highlighted several proposed measures that he believed would require broad political reforms. Examples included equal care for children throughout the country, investments in jobs for young people and investments in training in child and adolescent psychiatry.

Bris also collected a petition containing 10,000 names under the heading of #psykbryt, demanding:

  • Equal care in all county councils.
  • More funding for research into mental ill-health.
  • That every case of child suicide be investigated.

What can we do to improve children’s mental health? Danuta Wasserman is a professor in the Department of Public Health, KI, and has extensive experience of working with suicide prevention. She presented a method which her research group had evaluated in partnership with researchers from a range of other European countries.

“Our research indicates that by helping people to help themselves, you can reduce the rate of attempted suicide by 50 per cent and the incidence of depression by 30 per cent among young people”, she said.

Pupils are able to take part in interventions such as a supervised role play in which they can explore their feelings and learn coping strategies. She quoted one participant: “This is the first time in my life that my friend has said he has also been suffering from poor mental health and I have now realised that other people can feel as bad as I have”.

“This is the first time in my life that my friend has said he has also been suffering from poor mental health.

The method is now being introduced in Stockholm County in order to improve mental health and reduce the number of suicides and attempted suicides among school pupils.
Danuta Wasserman also took the opportunity to provide some general advice on how to improve your mental health: sleep, exercise, read books and watch films.

“This is really nothing new, this is something even my grandmother knew. But it bears repeating. Schools and society as a whole need to embrace these simple suggestions”, she said.

Another KI researcher who is focusing on mental ill-health is Emily Holmes, a professor in the Department of Clinical Neuroscience. She spoke about her research into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that can emerge following severe traumatic experiences, for example war. People with PTSD often experience intrusive memories, known as flashbacks, in which they involuntarily relive moments from these experiences.

“We have found that the computer game Tetris, combined with other behavioural psychology interventions, can reduce the incidence of flashbacks”, she said.

A small study has been carried out among young refugees who have recently arrived in Sweden.

Emily Holmes presented figures that indicated mental ill-health accounts for more than 15 per cent of the total burden of disease in the West, which is greater than all forms of cancer combined. However, barely two per cent of the research budget is spent on mental ill-health in the EU.

“We need research in order to evaluate the methods we use today, but also to find new treatment methods. Children and adolescents have their whole lives ahead of them; we have the chance to make a difference!

Children and adolescents have their whole lives ahead of them; we have the chance to make a difference!

The subsequent debate also featured Ida Höckerstrand and Sofie Hallberg, the instigators of Ångestpodden [the Anxiety Podcast], Mikael Dahlqvist, Social Democrat politician and member of the Riksdag’s Committee on Health and Welfare, and KI’s Acting Vice-Chancellor Karin Dahlman-Wright.

The moderator Carl Johan Sundberg asked: How can we reach out to young people?

“We started Ångestpodden because we felt that it was needed. We think that our podcast has become popular because we speak the same language as young people. It is important to talk with young people, rather than about them. We give them a voice”, said Sofie Hallberg.

Ångestpodden has over 30,000 listeners each month.

“Many of the young people who contact us are suffering, but don’t have anyone to talk to. They don’t know where to turn. That’s not how it should be”, said Ida Höckerstrand.
She argued that it would be interesting to see research that investigated the link between mental ill-health and the fact that many young people are currently living a large part of their lives on social media.

Who is responsible for the issue of mental ill-health?

“The Swedish Government is responsible for ensuring that Sweden complies with the Convention on the Rights of the Child”, said Magnus Jägerskog.

Mikael Dahlqvist confirmed that this is an important issue.

“This is a serious situation we are faced with. Swedish municipalities and county councils have initiated a number of projects in this area”, he said.

Karin Dahlman-Wright, Acting Vice-Chancellor of KI, pointed out that health services have responsibility for providing healthcare, but that universities have a responsibility to disseminate existing knowledge and ensure that society benefits from research.

“We also have to test and evaluate methods – and turn back if need be. Researchers also need to determine what problems need solving. What can be more important than ensuring that our children and adolescents are well”, she said.

Text and photo: Cecilia Odlind