Early adolescence is often a crucial time when it comes to healthy continued development in terms of mental health. Young people in Eastern Europe are currently facing particular challenges, as they are confronted by poverty and inequality on the one hand, and are often adversely affected by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine on the other. Heather Foran is working with partners to develop tools to provide affordable and scalable mental health programmes for the young people of Eastern Europe in particular. In recent weeks, her team has visited Moldova and Northern Macedonia for the purpose of training.
“Around half of mental health problems emerge in early adolescence,” as Heather Foran, Professor of Health Psychology at the Department of Psychology at the University of Klagenfurt, explains. Early adolescence is a key period for health because it is a time of vast physical, emotional, and social changes and a distinct phase of brain development. Family relationships and the role of legal guardians are crucial, as “educational approaches that provide security and autonomy are associated with healthy behaviours in children and adolescents. Children who grow up in a nurturing environment with ample opportunity to develop independence tend to enjoy better sleeping patterns, follow a healthier diet, engage in more physical activity and suffer less from anxiety and depression,” Foran goes on to say. The promotion of mental health, including within the family context, is clearly an important public health objective.
Heather Foran continues: “Support programmes are often expensive because they require the use of highly qualified staff and involve substantial licensing costs.” The programme “Parenting for Lifelong Health (PLH)“ is a suite of interventions at the individual and family level. PLH was developed in collaboration between researchers, the World Health Organization and UNICEF. In addition, researchers are planning to test PLH in combination with “Helping adolescents thrive” (UNICEF). The individual programmes are designed to be delivered by staff without specific professional background, and programme manuals are freely available under Creative Commons licensing. The aim is to meet the demand with regard to health promotion for children and adolescents and to prevent violence against children in low- or middle-income countries. “Essentially”, Foran adds, “the age group we work with is very vulnerable, and new combinations of prevention programmes are needed to increase effectiveness and sustainability.”
The question arises, however, as to the extent to which these aims – focusing particularly on Eastern Europe – are being met, and what adjustments remain to be made. This is the key research question that a consortium of international researchers, led by Heather Foran, will be addressing over the next four years as part of the project FLOURISH (Family-focused adolescent & lifelong health promotion). She specifies: “Our aim is to optimise and evaluate the effectiveness, cost-effectiveness and implementation of these programmes.”
To this end, the programmes will first be adapted to reflect current and culturally relevant challenges. In a next step, a comprehensive study will examine which package is most impactful and cost-effective. Subsequently, the optimised programme will be tested. Finally, the programme will be disseminated more widely by involving professionals and policy-makers.
The project was launched at the start of 2023 and will run until the end of 2026. Further information is available at flourish-study.org.