Newly-funded research targets mental health needs

Press Release – Health Research Council Of New Zealand

Newly-funded research targets mental health needs of Māori youth
A study will explore if an e-screening tool can increase the rate of mental health assessments in youth, and make it easier to disclose sensitive information.

Professor Felicity Goodyear-Smith, academic head of the Department of General Practice & Primary Health Care at the University of Auckland, has just been awarded $624,349 to explore the feasibility and acceptability of YouthCHAT – an electronic screening tool – across primary care settings with large Māori populations.

Funding comes from the Health Research Council of New Zealand’s (HRC) first initiative with the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases (GACD) – a collaboration of 14 health research funding agencies from around the world.

In line with the GACD’s global call for mental health research this year, the HRC partnered with the Ministry of Health to provide up to $2 million in funding for research to better support Māori and Pacific youth with mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorders.

Professor Goodyear-Smith hopes the e-screening tool will reach those adolescents who aren’t currently accessing help.

In New Zealand, suicide is a leading cause of death for youth aged 15-24, while depression and anxiety affect one in four young people.

Māori males living in deprived areas have the highest rates of suicide and disproportionate rates of depressive symptoms, says Goodyear-Smith.

She notes that early detection and intervention is paramount, yet health professionals in general practice may not always opportunistically discuss emotional or behavioural issues with youth, unless the issues are severe or raised by the young person.

A lack of time, experience and skill in youth mental health are part of the problem; face-to-face assessments can also be time-consuming and costly to resource, says Goodyear-Smith.

E-screening, she says, has been shown to provide consistent results, lead to greater disclosure, and to reduce staff time.

“There is emerging research that suggests youth may prefer to complete a self-assessment via an e-tool. E-screening is associated with youth disclosing sensitive information without fear of being judged, structuring their thoughts, and prioritising the issues for which they want help.”

She adds that e-screening does not replace a face-to-face consultation, but is designed to facilitate that process and make the conversation a lot easier. She anticipates it will be a culturally acceptable, cost-effective and time-saving tool that will lead to early detection (and intervention) of mental health issues, substance misuse and other risk-taking behaviour.

Dr Cameron Lacey, senior lecturer at the University of Otago, has also been awarded $535,880 to investigate health inequities for Māori diagnosed with a psychotic disorder.

A range of studies have identified that young Māori are disproportionately affected by psychotic disorders, including first episode psychosis (FEP), and they have worse outcomes, says Dr Lacey.

Rates of hospitalisation for Māori with schizophrenia are 3.5 times higher than the general population, he adds.

His project will use routinely-collected national data to identify detailed patterns of the health services used, both before diagnosis of FEP and post-diagnosis. These patterns will be used to develop best-practice recommendations for Māori and to generate strategies to address areas of unmet need, he says.

The HRC’s senior manager of Māori Health Research Investment, Mr Stacey Pene, says interest in this latest funding call, as well as the calibre of applications, bodes well for mental health research.

“It’s a good indication of potential future work to be done in this area – and shows a willingness to address gaps in mental health services and areas of inequity.”

The Ministry of Health’s Māori Leadership spokesperson, Alison Thom, says a key focus of the New Zealand health system is the prevention and management of chronic disease – including mental health.

“Research that helps us better manage mental health will play a part in contributing to these outcomes. We are pleased to see research proposals with a focus on such critical priorities,” she says.
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