Transforming child mental health services

In the realm of child and adolescent psychiatry, Professor Mina Fazel is a prominent figure who is revolutionising the way mental health services are delivered to children.

With a deep-rooted curiosity and a drive to improve the lives of young individuals, Professor Fazel's work in implementation science and school-based interventions has garnered significant attention.

Through her ground-breaking research and data-driven approach, Professor Fazel strives to bridge the gap between research and real-world impact, ensuring that interventions are effectively implemented and reach those in need, and ultimately transforming the landscape of child mental health services.

‘The focus of my work is about improving access to mental health interventions for children and adolescents’

Professor Fazel explains, ‘a big part of this is improving our understanding of the impacts of environmental interventions on children and adolescents and also evaluating whether the interventions we develop are balanced, effective and have real world impact. ’

‘I'm very interested in that whole implementation pathway.’

Professor Fazel's journey into the field of child and adolescent psychiatry was driven by her interest in understanding the impact of environmental factors on mental health.

Recognising the significant role schools play in a child's life, she became particularly intrigued by the potential of interventions within the school environment.

Her aim was to uncover ways to improve services for children and develop interventions that could be effectively implemented in the real world.

‘Since 2019 my team has been running the OxWell Student Survey in order to better understand what students need and which support they find most helpful’ Professor Fazel says.

‘The latest wave of the OxWell survey took place from February to March 2023, and 185 schools in six areas participated with over 40,000 school students taking part.’

One of Professor Fazel's pivotal discoveries came when she focused on the intersection of mental health services and schools.

Working initially with refugee children, she found that many more children were accessing mental health support through school-based services rather than traditional services.

This realisation led her to explore the potential benefits of school-based mental health services for a broader range of students.

Driven by the desire to address the mental health needs of children within their school environment, she delved into understanding how best to work within schools and effect service change at local and regional levels.

Professor Fazel's commitment to data-driven approaches led her to launch the Ultimate Student Survey, a comprehensive initiative aimed at collecting insights from children themselves.

With over 40,000 children participating in the OxWell 2023 survey, the data collected provides invaluable information for tailoring mental health provision to meet individual needs.

By analysing students' responses and preferences, Professor Fazel and her team can develop targeted interventions and improve service delivery, ensuring that mental health support aligns with the specific requirements of each child.

Having such large and established surveys can be a powerful tool for analysing what is happening during new situations, such as school closures during the COVID pandemic.

‘During the pandemic we looked at self-harm’ Professor Fazel explains.

‘We wanted to know what sources of support were available so we asked the young people who had actively been self-harming over a month in ‘lockdown’.’

‘We found that although many supports were available, 40% of kids don’t access any support.’

‘We also asked them if they accessed support online through a website or phone and if they found it helpful, and less than 10% accessed this type of support, and most did not find it helpful when they did access it.

‘This means that although services and funders are investing into developing mental health support apps or providing online support that, although this might definitely help a few, it does not meet the need of the majority of those self-harming.’

One of Professor Fazel's key strengths lies in her ability to harness data to shape policy and practice.

By working closely with commissioners and policymakers, she ensures that the insights gained from the collected data are translated into meaningful changes within the mental health landscape.

Her collaboration with local commissioners, such as those in Liverpool, facilitates evidence-based decision-making, allowing for informed actions that directly benefit children's well-being.

‘What we're trying to encourage through the survey is a data driven approach, so we can start to tailor our provision to need rather than making assumptions and delivering a blanket approach’

Professor Fazel explains. ‘It’s important to ask enough questions to get full and useful responses, and OxWell asks many, many questions.’

‘This helps us find out whether the respondents feel they need support, what sort of support they want, who they turn to and would like to turn to and finally whether they find any support accessed helpful.’

While Professor Fazel's research and work have achieved notable success, she faces numerous challenges in her pursuit of transforming child mental health services.

Funding remains a persistent hurdle, particularly for implementation science, where the gap between research and widespread dissemination requires additional resources and support.

Professor Fazel also highlights the need for policy changes that prioritise a child-centred approach, enabling effective and accessible mental health support for all children.

‘The dataset that we have built is a hugely valuable tool, which policymakers are beginning to realise and appreciate’

Professor Fazel says, ‘But there are relatively few funding streams for the implementation side of child health research because the assumption is that services will make necessary changes as a result of the research, but there's still a lot to understand about the implementation drivers so as to ensure changes in services are meeting the needs of the young people and are sustainable.’

There’s also the difficulty to contend with of ensuring that resources are made available to everyone who needs them.

‘I'm interested in schools, because most kids are at school,’ Professor Fazel explains.

‘but there’s also going to be a proportion of kids who don't attend school, and for them mental health support through schools isn’t the answer.’

Despite these obstacles, Professor Fazel remains committed to effecting change and advocating for child-centred policies.

She is determined to create an environment where children feel empowered to seek mental health support and where services are tailored to meet their unique needs.

Her ultimate goal is to influence policy at all levels to ensure that every child has access to high-quality mental health care.

Professor Mina Fazel's remarkable contributions to the field of child and adolescent mental health services have positioned her as a leading figure in her area of expertise.

Her tireless efforts to bridge the gap between research and practice, coupled with her dedication to improving services and policies, make her an invaluable advocate for the well-being of children and adolescents.

As she continues her journey, Professor Fazel's work promises to shape the future of mental health care and support for generations to come.

Professor Fazel's efforts have not only resulted in service changes at the local and regional levels but have also gained national attention.

Her collaboration with commissioners and policymakers has enabled her to influence decisions regarding mental health provision based on the rich data collected through initiatives like the OxWell Student Survey.

This survey, completed by over 40,000 children in 2023 and in previous waves of data collection by another 50,000 children and adolescents, has provided invaluable insights into the preferences and needs of students, allowing for tailored mental health interventions.

Looking ahead, Professor Fazel envisions expanding her work to assess not only formal but more informal sources of support such as interventions helping friends and family members.

‘We’ve found that when it comes to mental health support, most people turn to a friend first’

Professor Fazel says, ‘so we’re also looking at gender differences in how support is sought as these differences are substantial.’

‘Understanding this better will help us help all the people who are providing mental health support in the community and to target the support we offer effectively.’

By leveraging the power of data, she aims to shape policies and practices that prioritise the well-being of children and address barriers to accessing mental health support.