Koi Tū is embarking on a two-year project exploring the contributing factors in youth mental health, as identified by young people.

Koi Tū has established a youth mental health research team led by Dr Jessica Stubbing (Research Fellow) and Teina Rihari (Research Assistant), with oversight from Dr Kerry Gibson, Dr Anne Bardsley and Sir Peter Gluckman. Thanks to generous support from Graeme and Robyn Hart, the project seeks to develop a nuanced understanding of what young people around Aotearoa believe is influencing their mental health, which factors they consider most important, and how perspectives differ across diverse populations of young people.

The ultimate goal in understanding these influences is to help identify what changes or interventions might be most beneficial and acceptable to young people in different contexts in order to reverse current negative trends in mental wellbeing.

Project context

Current data from Aotearoa and around the world consistently demonstrates that rates of mental health challenges among young people are rising. Young people are struggling with their mental health more than ever, reflected in higher rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts and behavior. While young people’s mental health needs continue to rise, services, communities, and governments are struggling to keep up and address these needs. As we consider how to address this gap between need and action, one particular challenge is that, while we know mental health rates are rising, we do not know why that is. We certainly have some ideas – an expert reference group we gathered highlighted the challenges of our modern world and the limited resources offered to young people to cope with these as potential influences. We have developed a conceptual framework of the interactions between early development of emotional regulation in infancy and childhood and the passage through childhood and adolescence in a rapidly changing world but it needs testing. There have many changes to the environment and pressures of adolescence in recent years, including boundaries and expectations, the role of the digital milieu, and anxieties related to the future, such as climate change as potential influences. Covid has exacerbated these pressures. Globally there is little clear understanding of why rates of youth mental health concerns have risen so rapidly. This project is designed to explore the possible explanations both through the eyes of those who provide services and oversight to young people and from young people themselves – they are likely to have very different perspectives, and both need to be understood and linked.

What we’re doing

Around the world, researchers, mental health clinicians, and policymakers are increasingly emphasising the importance of allowing youth voices to guide and lead conversations about mental health policy. This growing movement centers on young people as experts on youth culture and their mental health, highlighting the importance of creating space for young people to teach us about their worlds. In this vein, our mental health project will involve working with young people directly as expert informants, inviting them to engage with us in a collaborative research process. The project will utilise mixed methods to ensure we have a depth of understanding of the nuance of youth mental health and a breadth of perspectives from a range of young people. In this way, our data can be informative for the most people in the greatest number of ways.

The team is working with key stakeholders in the Auckland and Northland communities in a co-design process. Throughout this process, stakeholders will help us shape and influence our research questions and methodologies. This allows us to ensure that our work is closely aligned with community priorities, particularly young people and the adults who support and work with them. Throughout the project, we will continue engaging with the community, including the Koi Tū Rangatahi Advisory Group, to ensure our work is grounded in community need.

Understanding the ‘Why’

Right now, more attention than ever is being turned to youth mental health. It is now commonly accepted that we need to do more – offer more services, shorten waitlists, spend more. However, we believe that to properly and effectively address the youth mental health crisis, we have to understand why the prevalence has risen so dramatically in the last two decades. Understanding what is going on is critical to prevention. High-quality research which looks at the broad context in which young people live their lives and have grown up is the most important hurdle for us to come if we want to make a meaningful difference for young people’s mental and emotional wellbeing in Aotearoa.