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Youth mental health and technology

We are transforming the mental health care of young people

The youth mental health and technology team puts young people at the centre of their own care. We partner with health services to develop innovative treatments for those aged 12-25 with emerging mental health disorders.

There is a great need to transform the way in which clinical care is delivered to young people with emerging mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, other mood disorders and psychosis. Specialised clinical assessment is required and treatment systems need to be much more customised to the individual’s unique needs.

A new way forward

We aim to transform how clinical care is delivered to young people with mental health issues. Rather than rely on broad diagnostic generalisations, we want to see clinicians diagnose and treat young people in a way that caters to the individual needs of each person.

We focus on three main streams of research:

  • neurobiological: ongoing longitudinal patient studies that allow us to develop and trial new interventions for complex mental health issues
  • technology: optimising online environments to deliver services, track progress and provide feedback to young people and their clinicians
  • clinical: continuously improving health services for young people by systematically evaluating services.

Novel interventions

The Brain and Mind Youth Cohort Study began in 2008. Nearly 10 years later, we have assessed 8000 individuals with early phases of anxiety, mood or psychotic disorders. From this cohort we have been able to carry out specific clinical trials of new behavioural, social and pharmacological interventions for these disorders. Current studies include the youth depression alleviation trial of fish oil (YoDA-F) and oxytocin nasal spray for alcohol dependence.

Project Synergy – transforming healthcare

We are using new online technologies to develop highly specialised programs for people with mental health problems. In time, this technology may be used as the first point of contact in clinical care. Together with the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre and supported by the Australian Government’s Department of Health, we have developed Project Synergy, an innovative e-mental health ecosystem of care for young people.

Synergy incorporates a range of complementary apps and web-based interventions that young people can use to manage their wellbeing and mental health. Synergy uses data collected through digital technologies to improve wellbeing, promote help-seeking behaviours and, if necessary, facilitate clinical care and engagement with online and face-to-face clinical services.

By providing a seamless continuum of support from online services through to healthcare providers, Synergy aims to fundamentally improve the system of care in Australia’s youth mental health services. We are currently running a trial of the Synergy ecosystem through headspace.

In terms of mental health, young people are most important. The majority of mental disorders have their onset within the adolescent to young adult period. It’s a time when the brain is undergoing the most dynamic changes.
Dr Daniel Hermens, Brain and Mind Centre.

Personalised and responsive care

Mental health diagnoses are often ambiguous, particularly in the early stages of an illness. This is a major challenge for clinicians when trying to identify the most suitable and effective treatment strategies.

To this end, we have developed a new clinical staging model to help clinicians accurately identify the severity of the illness a young person they are assisting may have. With this knowledge, options for safer and more effective interventions can be discussed between the young person and their treating team, in line with the stage of illness the young person has.

This approach will help healthcare providers deliver better quality services, especially to young people who have a clear need for mental health care but may not otherwise receive it. It can also help clinicians consider the potential trajectory or future pathway of an illness to better guide individual support, intervention and service design.

General mental health 

Our broad program of research also includes:

  • development of novel suicide-prevention strategies
  • assessment of neurobiological markers of disease using magnetic resonance spectroscopy
  • behavioural approaches to the sleep-wake cycle and activity modulation
  • personalised approaches to education and employment participation.

Collaboration for better outcomes

Our research program is heavily integrated with headspace Camperdown. Headspace is the national youth mental health foundation providing early intervention and mental health services to 12-25 year olds. The integration of cutting-edge research with safe and effective clinical care enables us to quickly and effectively translate our research findings into clinical services, facilitating continuous improvements to mental health services for the benefit of young people in Australia. 

Improving mental health - Ian Hickie