Mental health in childhood: understanding environment & genetics for better care

This week is Children’s Mental Health Week, highlighting the importance of mental health support in schools and the facts surrounding children’s mental health. One in six children and young people have a diagnosable mental health problem, and 50% of those with lifetime mental health problems first experience symptoms by the age of 14. These figures have been getting worse over time.

Spread the Word! Children's Mental Health Week 2023. 6th to 12th February 2023.

We urgently need more research to understand what is causing these problems, how to identify problems early, and the best treatments to help. Most health research is carried out in adults, meaning clues and opportunities to prevent and treat mental illness in children are missed.

To begin to address this problem, for the past two years, the NIHR BioResource has been running a pilot project with the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, a leading national children’s mental health charity. Together they have been running in-school sessions to educate young people aged 11 – 15 on how genetics and the environment interact to impact on health, including mental health. This is supporting new NIHR BioResource work to build a library of genetics with young volunteers to address the research gap in mental health.

This new programme, the DNA, Children + Young People's Health Resource (D-CYPHR), will launch nationally in 2023, following extensive consultation with families and schools.

D-CYPHR aims to explore how serious illnesses (such as diabetes and heart conditions) start to develop as we grow and age, and the environmental factors that can keep us healthy. This will include the study of the causes and treatments for mental health conditions. It will follow on from the highly successful Genetic Links to Anxiety and Depression (GLAD) Study & Eating Disorders Genetics Initiative (EDGI) UK to understand the genetic links to such mental health conditions. The ambition is, for the first time, to get a more complete view of childhood physical and mental health.

The project is led by Dr Anna Moore, a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, and NIHR Clinical Lecturer at the University of Cambridge:

“We have an incredibly exciting opportunity to transform children’s health through D-CYPHR. We know that nearly all diseases start in the first 20 years of life, and D-CYPHR will give us the chance to study this for both mental and physical health – and will help us to understand the relationship between them.

"Through this work, we will be able to develop new treatments and ways to identify illness much earlier, so children and young people can get the help they need much sooner. The key to the success of D-CYPHR is to involve as many people as possible. It is vital that we include a diverse range of children and young people as well so that we can develop new treatments that help everybody.

"During our visits to schools across England, students have sometimes been surprised to hear from a psychiatrist on a project that involves genetics, but we are increasingly learning that part of the risk of developing a mental health condition is based on our genes and how they interact with our environment.

"If we can improve our understanding of how this works, we have an important way to develop new treatments and improve mental health care for young people.”
Group of students in white lab coats in school hall
St Michael's CE High School students at D-CYPHR pilot event in Birmingham in October 2022

The D-CYPHR schools programme will launch nationally later this year, starting via the Anna Freud Centre's Schools in Mind network. Participating schools will be able to access incentives such as assembly and lesson packs.

Families from across the country will be able to register their interest online if they have a young volunteer interested in providing a saliva sample and completing a health & lifestyle questionnaire.

There’s hope in your DNA - help childhood medical research by joining in with D-CYPHR.

If you are a school or volunteer family who is interested in the pilot phase for ages 11 – 15 please email for more information.

Anyone aged 16 or over can play their part in vital health research too. Find out more about joining the NIHR BioResource today. 

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