Digital Interventions: A way to make support more accessible?

Dr Shaun Liverpool

Lecturer in Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Wellbeing, Dr Shaun Liverpool, is invested in exploring how mental health support and wellbeing can be made more accessible to children and young people through digital techniques. Shaun sat down with us to tell us more.

What first interested you in child and adolescent mental health and wellbeing and your specialist area? 

Before my undergraduate degree, I was very interested in Computer Science and saw this as the direction for my future. It was only when I stumbled across a module in my Psychology studies that I realised that I was also extremely interested in Mental Health. So, I undertook my undergraduate honours degree in Psychology in the Caribbean before completing a Masters in Health Psychology in the UK. After my studies, I was very interested and committed to finding a way to combine my passion for Computer Science with topics and themes around Psychology and Mental Health. I eventually found the way to do this through my PhD in Child & Adolescent Mental Health. As part of my PhD, there were opportunities to help develop an app to support parents and carers of children with mental health issues. This really brought everything together for me. As we know, the younger generation is very technology driven so exploring digital intervention methods for mental health was the perfect way for me to combine my two interests. This continues to be the focus of my academic interests and research.

What is digital intervention?

Digital intervention is the act of using digital technology devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, and computers, to engage young people in what used to be face-to-face mental health intervention practices like psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Digital intervention is all about embedding these techniques into services through these digital devices, ultimately making the support much more widely available.

What has your research in this area involved?

My PhD research involved developing an app for parents to use to help them make decisions around mental health for their child. For example, the app is designed to provide the support for them to understand and answer questions like ‘what diagnostic tool should my child use?’ and ‘what sort of treatment (e.g medication, psychotherapy, group therapy etc) is most appropriate for my child’s needs?’ The aim is for parents to be much more involved in seeking information, with the answers and support provided to them quickly and efficiently. We tested the app across 12 NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) sites and gathered feedback from both the parents using the app and clinicians. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive in terms of the usefulness of the app. The next stage is to do a randomised control sample to see if that app does work as it is intended. We already know that it is liked and that people are willing to use it, but we need to establish whether it actually does increase decision making in parents and, more importantly, whether involvement with the app improves the mental health symptoms and wellbeing for the young person.

What is the importance, for students, of studying and working in the field of child and adolescent mental health and exploring digital interventions?

The main importance is the alarming prevalence of mental ill health in children and young people. 10- 20% of children and young people experience some kind of mental health disorder. (see Kieling et al, 2011). These figures are very likely to increase even further too, especially with the recent coronavirus pandemic. It is therefore vital that we not only continue to raise awareness, but also train future professionals in this area.

In terms of the importance of digital interventions, we need to look at the number of people who currently access specialist mental health services. We then need to look at the gap between those who are accessing these services and the provision. Do we have enough? Do these services meet the needs of the children and young people who are accessing them? How can we ensure this essential help and support is available for all those who need it? To reach the vast number of young people with help and support, digital interventions can be considered as a possible way forward. These methods have the capacity for making the help and support more accessible and scalable. On top of this, we already know there is an interest for young people in using digital technologies in everyday life, so combining and integrating this with mental health and wellbeing support means there is a tendency for the uptake of such an integration to be very positive.

How can students explore these topics on their degree at Edge Hill? 

Owing to the dynamic and diverse expertise of the team at Edge Hill, students will have several opportunities to engage with this subject matter. For example, there are modules exploring innovative interventions used in child and adolescent mental health and wellbeing services. Similarly, students can incorporate literature around digital interventions in their assignments and facilitate discussions with active researchers in the field. There is also scope to develop as aspiring researchers through research modules and the dissertation which allow students to investigate topics of interest. With these skills students can naturally progress to postgraduate studies or apply this knowledge to workplaces that aim to support children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.