One in seven young people experiences an issue with their mental health, and many adults who experience problems with their mental health experience their first symptoms during adolescence. Researching the biological basis of mental health in young people can provide insights into the mechanisms underlying mental illnesses, which can inform the development of more effective treatments. It can help identify potential risk factors and early warning signs, enabling early intervention and prevention of mental health disorders.
One study currently focusing on this is the eBRAIN study, which is being run at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London (KCL). The eBRAIN study investigates the impact of early life adversity on young people's brain development and mental health. The study involves participants aged 11-14 from London who have a brain scan, give biological samples, and answer lots of questions about their life experiences, thoughts, and feelings.
My name is Stanley, I am a 15-year-old student in London and I am a participant in the eBRAIN study.
I first heard of the eBRAIN study when two researchers from KCL presented an assembly at my school explaining the study and inviting us to take part. They also spoke to us about mental health. This is where, for the first time, I and many of my peers were educated on the stigma surrounding mental health issues, particularly, how many people with mental health problems are treated differently and their struggles ignored just because it is not a visible illness and is sometimes viewed to be a sign of weakness or vulnerability.
Having known people struggling with mental health issues at the time due to lockdown and stress, my instant response was, "that’s wrong" and then, "what can I do about it?" Having the opportunity to take part in the eBRAIN study gave me a way to channel my frustrations and hopefully, to create a positive impact on the world.
What was it like to take part?
The idea of someone studying the growth of my brain was amazing in itself, but the idea that that data might then be used to help the 1-in-7 young people struggling with mental health issues truly resonated with me. I felt that for once I would be able to bring about change to an issue that I was passionate about.
Before taking part in eBRAIN, mental health studies were a mystery to me — an enigma that eleven-year-old me could not quite wrap his little head around. I understood the basic concept of studying human behaviour and biological changes, but not how that could be translated into some sort of remedy for healing mental health issues.
The first study visit began with questionnaires on my mental health and emotional experiences over both a short time period of two weeks and then also a long-term period of six months. There was also a quiz on non-verbal reasoning that tests pattern recognition and a vocab quiz which tested my ability to explain different words. I also had an interview conducted by one of the researchers including questions on my thoughts and feelings, and any stressful life experiences that I might have had during my childhood.
The next part of the study visit included saliva, urine, and blood samples being taken. I was quite nervous initially because it was the first time that I’d met the researchers and my first time giving biological samples, but after I realised how easy it was, I calmed down and settled into the visit.
The questionnaires were a particular point of interest for me as they made me consider elements of my life and their implications which I may have taken for granted before, such as a loving two-parent household. The vocab and non-verbal reasoning tests I particularly enjoyed because of their ability to challenge me and force me to work, to conjure definitions of words, or connect the dots to find a pattern through a series of images.
Eventually, it was time for the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan where detailed images of my brain and surrounding tissues were taken using strong magnetic fields. Inside the MRI I had to lie still for the most part, however, there was one task where I had to complete a simple ‘Yes or No’ quiz done by the use of a handheld controller. Two face images were shown and I had to decide if they were the same face showing the same emotion. The MRI took roughly three-quarters of an hour. It made me feel ill and a little bit motion sick just from the vibrations, but I knew that if I was in trouble during the scan, the staff had equipped me with an emergency buzzer so my mind was at rest. It was also very loud; however, I found that with the earplugs I was able to quickly adjust and after a while, you can kind of just zone it out.
Finally, I filled out a feedback sheet and final paperwork before receiving my vouchers and going home! After my first study visit, I then completed two further study visits, a year apart.
What did I think of the overall experience?
Throughout the process of eBRAIN my outlook on mental health and research has changed, through the development of both myself as a person and having a deeper understanding of the study itself, the pieces began to click together in my head.
Since both a healthy diet and regular exercise are crucial to the maintenance of good mental health as well as brain development, it makes logical sense to study the effects of these factors on adolescents and see if there is a direct correlation to mental resilience in these people. The study also considers different adverse life events that may increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of poor mental health such as experiences of bullying, family separation, or being a victim of crime. It really helps to bring to light the challenges that many people face, not just in London or the rest of the UK but all over the world in general, that might cause them to feel this way or struggle with mental health issues. Oftentimes it can be the continual presence of a smaller issue, like hurtful comments or altercations with friends that if not addressed can grow over time and morph into something severely detrimental to the wellbeing of the person.
I had a really good experience with eBRAIN and I feel that it has helped me to learn a lot about myself and caused me to consider many things that normally would have gone unnoticed such as the aforementioned factors like diet and exercise. Also, in a way, it has helped me to open up about thoughts and feelings that may have remained hidden if not for my participation in this study. I suppose throughout the whole process my one key belief has remained which is that the stigma around mental health is utterly and entirely wrong and unfounded. That principle kept me going throughout some of the less enjoyable parts of the study, like the MRI scan!
Overall, it was an amazing experience, and I was and still am grateful for the opportunity I received to be part of something much bigger that could have a widespread impact on the wellbeing of my peers and agemates.
In my opinion, the best way to encourage other young people like me to take part in studies of this nature is to make sure that they have a very personal experience of it — like you do with eBRAIN through the one-to-one interviews and questionnaires — and to help them understand what they are a part of as well as nurturing their growth as they become mature young adults in the world today.
To get the most accurate and honest responses, the participants must feel that they are in a safe space with requirements of confidentiality and privacy so that they feel free and comfortable to share their true thoughts and feelings on the subject matter, whatever it may be.
I look forward to taking part in any further studies in which I can make a difference or bring about change.