DISCOVER: improving mental health for 16-18 year olds

The theme of World Mental Health Day 2018 is 'young people and mental health in a changing world' - we hear from Dr Irene Sclare about a project that is helping to improve mental health for 16-18 year olds. Dr Irene Sclare is a consultant clinical psychologist and Programme lead for the DISCOVER programme which has recently been shortlisted for The Guardian Public Service Awards 2018.

Irene Sclare Cropped 3

DISCOVER focuses on supporting young people aged 16-18 who are experiencing high levels of stress and worry, by working with them in sixth forms and colleges. This age group is facing rising rates of anxiety and depression but find it hard to reach mental health services, either because of worries about stigma or difficulty accessing psychological support.

We offer help and support to students at school, a place that feels safe and familiar to them, and more convenient. We visit all types of schools and colleges around London and the South East, and have delivered the programme to over 1,000 students.

How does DISCOVER work?
The programme is about offering psychological help to young people at an early stage of their difficulties to prevent things from getting worse. It has been designed by clinical psychologists and is rooted in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). We have done research trials of DISCOVER that prove that the programme is effective. We introduce ourselves to everybody in sixth form at a school assembly, explain what DISCOVER can provide to tackle stress and worry, and ask young people to come forward if they would like to have this psychological support.

We meet the young people individually to find out what’s going on for them. They are then invited to a one-day DISCOVER workshop within their school where they learn about stress and how it affects our mental health, and how we think and react under pressure. We then teach them various psychological techniques to handle their problems and help them to set personal goals.

Popular goals are around improving their self-confidence, tackling worries, getting a better work/life balance, and improving the amount and quality of sleep. We follow up with their progress by phone and text, then meet them again three months to review their wellbeing. If they need further support or advice, we can work with the school and parents to put this in place and where necessary, help them access specialist help.

What kind of issues affect this age group?
A lot of 16-18 year olds worry about whether people like them and what their friends think of them, and compare themselves unfavourably with others around them. It is easy for troubled teenagers to think that everyone else except them is coping well and enjoying their lives. What we often find is those young people whose peers regard as popular, happy and successful are also experiencing high rates of uncertainty, self-harm and loneliness.

There are a lot of academic stresses too, and these can seem endless and overwhelming. Some young people find themselves overworking and exhausting themselves, or being unable to prioritise the work they need to do. Others lose their motivation and fall behind, which adds to the pressures. Another big pressure for young people is planning their future, thinking about making the grade for university or finding work. Of course, 24/7 access to social media affects mental health - people all look as if their lives are perfect, and it’s easy to forget that they may have learned to hide unhappiness or worry when they have an outside self that looks great. On the other hand, social media can help people access support for mental health.

Although in recent years students and teachers are more willing to talk openly about mental health, we’ve met many young people who have never told people how they’re feeling - sometimes this is related to their family or cultural background. Or it may be because they haven’t known who to talk to or trust.

What are young people’s and teachers’ responses to DISCOVER?
Aside from learning techniques which help them to manage stress and worry, young people value being in a group and seeing that their peers are struggling too, and sharing ways to help each other. Some of the comments from DISCOVER participants include “DISCOVER is a great way to feel listened to and meet people who are going through the same battle as you are in life” and “It taught me many life skills on calming the mind by doing things such as breathing techniques”. “It allows me to view things from different perspectives".

Teachers also provide us with feedback about the programme. They have said: “DISCOVER helped us identify students we may not have been aware were struggling” and “It has been brilliant- not only has it supported the group of students involved but also the pastoral team and approaches to the wider curriculum. Thank you!”.

What’s next for DISCOVER?
We are going to adapt the programme so we’ve got a training package for teachers, to enable them to better support their students. We’re also developing a version of DISCOVER tailored to young people leaving local authority care – they can be particularly vulnerable to mental health problems. Also, I’m excited about a new national initiative for school-based education mental health workers, and we will be helping to train them to work with teenagers who are experiencing emotional difficulties. The Trust, along with King’s College London, will be a trailblazing site for training this new workforce in the next year and DISCOVER is going to be a major part of that.

Find out more about DISCOVER

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