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Supporting innovation in children’s mental health and resilience

Posted on 26th February

Children and young people’s mental health is a top priority of the NHS Long Term Plan, while the extraordinary challenges presented by COVID-19 have increased the pressure on mental health services even further.

The West of England Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) is working with NHS commissioners and providers, industry partners, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, schools and community providers on a wide range of initiatives to support their work to improve mental healthcare and wellbeing for both adults and children.

Digital technology can complement NHS mental health care services and evidence-based treatments, and through our pioneering Future Challenges programme, we are exploring exciting innovations with this potential.

The Future Challenges programme helps innovators to tackle unmet healthcare needs in the region, by supporting them to work with local partners to pilot their solution in a real-world setting. If successful, the evidence generated from the pilot can be used to support wider adoption of the product.

As part of the Future Challenges’ focus on Young People and Mental Health Resilience, we have been running two projects in secondary schools in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire: MiHUB and SmartGym Gloucestershire.

MiHUB – using virtual reality to equip young people with emotional skills

The MiHUB project uses ProReal, a virtual reality technology that equips young people to understand and express their own complex emotions around particular problems they may face. Through avatar-based visual representations of everyday situations, young people are guided to create a visual representation of their own world and how they experience it.

ProReal Ltd’s avatar-based technology is already in use in the NHS, third sector and business settings – and is validated to support resilience sessions – but this project is the first time it has been used in an educational setting.

Participating pupils from Royal Wootton Bassett Academy, chosen as the pilot school because of its ‘focus and commitment to developing resilience in its pupils’, have not only been able to trial the platform, but were also able to get involved in its creation, alongside the technology developers.

While still early days, staff at the school have cited the software as being helpful in opening up conversations with young people about their emotions, exploring emotions through role-play and storytelling, and being able to look at a problem from a different perspective.

Tim Waldron, Department Head at Royal Wootton Bassett Academy, said: “MiHUB is offering the potential for students to explore their mental health in new and innovative ways. The platform provides those students who may not be able to vocalise their concerns with visual stories that can express the complexities of the challenges that they may be facing.

We believe that young people need to have a range of methods to support their well-being that go beyond reading or watching self-help guides, and this platform certainly does that.”

Cllr Laura Mayes, Cabinet Member for Children, Education and Skills at Wiltshire Council said: “Wiltshire Council and BSW CCG are excited to be working as part of the MiHUB project, helping to develop and trial new uses of technology in the school setting.

 “The use of this innovative technology is a new area of delivery for us, although it provides a natural progression from our work during recent years to explore a greater use of technology to enable young people to access wellbeing support in more accessible and relevant ways.

 “This tool will enable young people to explore their own thoughts and feelings in a context that has been shown to be effective for those that may find face to face interactions in the real world more difficult to establish and continue. We would be interested to find out whether such a creative visual approach will also be more likely to engage some groups of pupils.

 “MiHUB is an appealing and accessible tool that could be easily added to our suite of local interventions to support the wellbeing and resilience of young people.”

Andrew Jackon, Chief Executive at ProReal Ltd. concluded: “I’ve been impressed with the way the AHSN has joined the dots – working across education, research, health and industry is not easy, but we have much more in common than we first realised. The school has been brilliant and it has been great to build a solution WITH students as well as FOR them!”

 SmartGym Gloucestershire – using physical activity to increase confidence and motivation

The SmartGym Resilience Programme, created by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, explores the value in combining physical activity with cognitive exercise, to help build young people’s resilience. Using Rugged Interactive’s CardioWall technology, the programme – which resembles circuit training – aims to promote problem solving and relationship building, in order to increase confidence and motivation.

Newent Community School and Sixth Form Centre was selected as the pilot school because of its commitment to supporting children’s resilience as part of their emotional development, and to creating a diverse and inclusion culture. Early indicators of the pilot are looking promising.

Alan Johnson, Principle at Newent Community School: “Seldom has an opportunity with such potential presented itself to schools. The SmartGym Resilience Programme offers a unique solution that appears extremely successful in removing barriers to learning. Never has it been as important to embrace this obvious potential and, as children return to school after lockdown, it will be a key element in our arsenal to re-establish the motivation, concentration and determination to learn.”

Rugged Interactive and the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families: “The feedback from pupils and staff so far has been overwhelmingly positive, and extremely encouraging. The programme, with its non-stigmatizing approach, is proving to be beneficial on both a universal level, but also as a targeted intervention for engaging with children who might be typically hard to reach. In spite of phase 2 of the project being heavily disrupted by coronavirus (irregular sessions and some inconsistent attendance), teachers have still reported improved behaviour, attitude and social skills amongst the programme cohort – in some pupils to a striking degree. It is clear that the programme is a very powerful tool for helping young people build invaluable mental health resilience, and we look forward to continuing to support Newent School once school life returns to normal. Our ultimate goal is to roll SmartGym out into every secondary school in the country.”

The Future Challenges programme, which supports the highest level of innovative partnership working, enables those involved to co-produce the project plan and delivery mechanism, as well as gather the data and evidence in order to measure the project’s impact.

Through this work we are able to support the development of new innovations in order to deliver better health and, potentially, greater wealth, for the region.  The potential these pilots hold for improving health outcomes and supporting the NHS in its Long Term Plan is very exciting”, explains Nigel Harris, Director of Innovation & Growth at the West of England AHSN.

Natasha Swinscoe, Chief Executive Officer at the West of England AHSN, adds: “At the West of England AHSN we recognise mental health as a key priority. This was identified in the NHS Long Term Plan, and COVID-19 has brought this into sharper focus as well as increasing demand for mental health services. The project pilots MiHUB and SmartGym Gloucestershire are just two examples of work we are doing in this area. Alongside developing innovations such as these, we are also working with NHS commissioners and providers, industry partners, other AHSNs, local trusts, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and community providers on a wide range of initiatives to support their work to improve mental healthcare and wellbeing. You can find out more about our work in this area here.

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