Small Improvements in Mental Health for All Youth Can Save More Lives Than Focusing on High-Risk Individuals, New Study Finds
A new study suggests that making small improvements in the mental health of all youth will do more to save lives than solely focusing on those considered at higher risk of suicide.
According to research conducted by scholars from the University of Cambridge, most teenagers engaging in self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts exhibit only mild to moderate mental distress.
The findings propose that the most effective strategy to reduce suicide risk among adolescents and young adults is to focus on the emotional well-being of all individuals, not just those who appear to be most distressed, depressed, or anxious.
Stressful times like those resulting from the current coronavirus pandemic may place more youth at a higher suicide risk, including those without consistent symptoms of a diagnosable disorder.
“It appears that self-harm and suicidal thoughts among young people increase dramatically within the normal or non-clinical range of mental distress,” said senior author Peter Jones from the Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge in a statement.
“These findings show that public policy strategies for reducing suicide should support better mental health for all youth, not just those who are most unwell,” Jones stated. “Even modest improvements in mental health and well-being across the entire population can prevent more suicides than targeting those who are severely depressed or anxious.”
Previous studies have suggested that a broad range of mental health problems such as depressive anxiety and low self-esteem can be collectively measured as levels of common mental distress.
In the latest study, the Cambridge researchers used a series of questionnaires to analyze common mental distress in two large groups of youths aged between 14 and 24. They also collected data on suicidal thoughts and non-suicidal self-harm, both predictive markers for increased suicide risk.
Youths with severe mental distress had the highest suicide risk – as expected. However, the majority of participants experienced suicidal thoughts or self-harm.
“Our findings help explain why research focused on high-risk subjects has not yet translated into useful clinical tools to predict suicide risk,” said Jones. “Self-harm and suicidal thoughts deserve a prompt response, even if they occur without further evidence of a psychiatric disorder.”
The researchers said their findings provide evidence that mental health could be seen as a “prevention paradox,” similar to diabetes and heart disease, where small improvements in the risks for the overall population are more effective in saving lives than solely focusing on those considered at higher risk.
Since many young people who commit suicide were not considered high-risk, mental health measures should be directed toward all youth, the researchers said.
The youths involved in the study either lived in London or Cambridgeshire. The first study group included 2,403 participants, and the second had 1,074 youths.
Researchers from the University College London also collaborated on the study, which was published in BMJ Open.
In the USA, mental health experts are concerned about the impacts of the various stay-at-home orders adopted amid the COVID-19 crisis. In Philadelphia, mental health services remain open, and most therapists across the region are conducting telehealth consultations.