Novel approach enables improved capabilities for mental health research and evaluation in New Zealand

A Better Start National Science Challenge researchers, Nicholas Bowden, and co-authors from the Big Data and Resilient Teens research teams have developed a new and useful method for identifying and better understanding mental health and related problems among children and young people in New Zealand.

This is the first method developed to identify children and young people with mental health and related problems in the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI).

“We worked in collaboration with a range of mental health professionals including child and adolescent psychiatrists, paediatricians, psychologists, and academic researchers in child and adolescent mental health,” Mr Bowden said.

Mental health problems are common among children and young people, with a worldwide estimated prevalence of 13.4% affected by any mental disorder. In New Zealand, school-based survey results indicate 31% of young people experience at least two weeks of low mood, 15.7% report suicidal ideation, and 24% engage in self-harm each year.

The short-term consequences of childhood and adolescent mental health problems can impact on educational achievement and other developmental milestones. Longer term, they may be associated with personal costs, such as reduced employment, poorer quality of life, as well as societal costs such as greater economic burden.

The team used diagnostic and pharmaceutical dispensing information from five health data sets held in the IDI. The study was recently published in the BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making Journal – Case Identification of Mental Health and Related Problems in Children and Young People using the New Zealand Integrated Data Infrastructure.

“The method identifies many children and young people with mental health problems but will also miss some, such as those who are treated in primary care without pharmaceuticals, and those who do not seek treatment,” he said. “The study demonstrated both the potential value, as well as the limitations, of using IDI data for mental health research.”

In New Zealand the IDI has the potential to be a valuable resource for mental health research. There is no gold standard means for identifying mental health problems among children and young people in the IDI. The Challenge research wanted to fill that gap and enable mental health research that can better understand the lives of those with mental health problems, including examining health trajectories, comorbidities and a range of other wellbeing outcomes.

“These uses are especially important in understanding the burden of mental health conditions and the impact they have on the lives of children and young people,” says Professor Wayne Cutfield, A Better Start Challenge Director.

The method establishes a consistent and clinically relevant approach to being able to identify those who have presented to services with these mental health or related conditions. Researchers can use this approach to examine changes in service use over time, preventive and risk factors associated with mental health, and variation of life outcomes for those who are identified as having mental health or related conditions.

“We plan to use this method to look at health trajectories of people with mental health problems, and to examine life outcomes such as education attainment, employment, income, and justice system interactions in relation to mental health,” says Mr Bowden.

The method is not intended to calculate prevalence estimates for mental health problems in New Zealand. Read the paper here.

Key contacts:

Dr Sarah Hetrick The University of Auckland Mobile: 021 173 3878
Professor Wayne Cutfield Director, A Better Start National Science Challenge Mobile: 021 734 441
Nicholas Bowden University of Otago Mobile: 027 201 1151