article5 min read

Mental health and young people: why we need to intervene early

Research collected by the Children’s Society found that in the U.K. at least ‘10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem’.[1] Worryingly, ‘50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24’, suggesting that our failure to promote good mental health at an early age is a key contributor to the development of recurrent and more disabling conditions in adulthood.[2] The danger here is twofold: while mental ill health creates incalculable suffering for individuals afflicted, it is also a huge burden on society.

Therefore, as The Department of Health stated, it is imperative that we ‘prevent mental illness from developing and mitigate its effects when it does’ by ‘intervening early’ in the formative childhood and teenage years.[3]

This is why initiatives like Positive’s Teacher and Schools programmes and the University of Oxford’s Mindfulness and Resilience in Adolescence Project (MYRIAD) matter.


MYRIAD sets out to understand whether and how mindfulness training can be used to prevent depression and build resilience during early adolescence. A key step to achieving this involves helping students to unlearn over-learned, automatic, and oftentimes unhelpful forms of responses in times of emotional stress and enhance their ability to step back, calm down, and reflect before acting.

To this end, MYRIAD engages teachers and students in mindfulness training. Shown to be effective in adults in preventing depression and reducing distress, researchers train teachers to teach mindfulness skills within the normal school curriculum and show young people how to translate and apply these skills in their daily lives.[4]

Early signs show that MYRIAD’s mindfulness training is displaying promising results. A study including 552 young people in secondary schools found that, ‘levels of stress and low-grade depressive symptoms went down in those who received mindfulness training compared to control groups’.[5] The study also suggested that mindfulness could have a significant impact on academic performance; as researcher Willem Kuyken observed, ‘at times of greater stress, such as the exam period, the difference in levels of low-grade depressive symptoms between mindfulness schools and non-mindfulness schools became larger.’


Taking a similar approach to MYRIAD, we at Positive understand that making interventions early and promoting good mental health at a young age is crucial to enhancing wellbeing and performance now and in the future. Delivering programmes in schools that provide insight into the workings of brain, we equip teachers with practical, interactive tools that they can translate and apply within the classroom environment, passing on the learning and techniques to help their students build emotional literacy and regulate their emotional responses.

Alongside mindfulness training, a primary tool we train teachers to use and apply in the classroom is known as the Emotional Barometer (EB).

When effectively used, individuals plot their emotions daily, writing a short description in reference to each entry. This process allows individuals to spot trends in their mood over time (which neural circuits are strongest and which behaviours are automatic) and identify what pushes them to the left- and right-hand sides of the barometer. While moving around the quadrants is normal, becoming stuck on the left can lead to problems. Understanding the triggers that move you back to the right of the barometer and seeking them in times of stress can help improve psychological resilience—a cognitive style that allows us to recover quickly from adversity and curtail harmful rumination.

The EB is highly effective for de-stigmatizing and normalising negative emotions. When the data collected is displayed to a group and reveals a range of moodstates, both positive and negative, the sense of alienation or ‘it’s only me’ associated with stress and anxiety that often exacerbates negative emotions can be mitigated. Such an environment encourages and facilitates open discussion regarding otherwise unspoken issues.

For instance, last October, following a short presentation in which a teacher introduced the EB tool to her colleagues and informed them of her learning from Positive’s course on ‘Pressure and Performing’, the group immediately entered into open and honest discussion about the impact of the their work on their wellbeing. Thus for teachers and students alike, the EB helps to create dialogue around feelings of stress, creating that ever-so relieving feeling of ‘it’s not just me’.

This is far from an isolated case. Positive has received an fantastic response from teachers and students in our programmes, with many stating that they have received ‘huge benefits’ in terms of ‘worrying less’ and significantly improved their ability to ‘rationalise emotional responses’. ‘All teachers,’ one respondent said, ‘should complete this programme and all schools should use its learning with students’. Such support from school staff reinforces the lasting value of programmes such as ours and research like that of MYRIAD, which is essential for securing both teacher and student wellbeing and performance. While there is a long way to go, we are definitely on the way to bucking the trend of mental ill health in young people and adults.

[1] Green,H., Mcginnity, A., Meltzer, Ford, T., Goodman,R. 2005 Mental Health of Children and Young People in Great Britain: 2004. Office for National Statistics

[2] Kessler RC, Berglund P, Demler O, Jin R, Merikangas KR, Walters EE. (2005). ‘Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.’ Archives of General Psychiatry, 62 (6) pp. 593-602. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.6.593

[3] Department of Health. ‘No health without mental health.’ London: Department of Health, 2011.

[4] Chiesa A, Serretti A. ‘Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: a review and meta-analysis.’ J Altern Complem Med 2009; 15(5): 593-600


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