News round-up (17 May 2024)

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17th May 2024 about a 7 minute read

More has emerged on the harmful impact smartphones can have on young people’s mental health, with almost one in five older teenagers saying that social media has made their life not worth living. A promising new trial shows the potential benefits of virtual reality (VR), with care home residents being able to take “walks” in the countryside from the comfort of their chairs while using a VR headset. A biotech chief, meanwhile, has said that artificial intelligence (AI) has the power to transform drug development, slashing costs while speeding up the creation of new medicines.

Main stories from the week

New AI tool can assess suicide risk

A new AI-powered assessment tool is able to predict the likelihood that someone is exhibiting suicidal thoughts and behaviours, a study has found.

Virtual reality enhances working memory, research suggests

Virtual reality (VR) exercise sessions can significantly improve mood and performance at working memory tasks more than exercise or rest alone, according to new research.

Government policies should face mental health impacts test, charity argues

Every time the government develops a new policy, it should systematically assess its impact on people’s mental health, according to a report published by the Centre for Mental Health, a charity, during Mental Health Awareness Week.

Six mental health trusts rollout digital tool for mental health care

Six mental health trusts in London are to roll out a digital tool in 2024-2025 to support assessment of people detained under the Mental Health Act (MHA), Digital Health has reported.

And other stories from the week…

One in five older teenagers say life is not worth living

Almost one in five of 16-18 year olds say they feel that life is not worth living because of social media, a survey has found.

The survey of 1,000 teens by the charity Parentkind, asked them how they are affected by smartphones. Four in ten thought their school grades had been affected by the technology and almost half of the teenage girls polled felt pressure to change their looks.

The survey also found that almost one in five older teenagers are accessing suicide and self-harm content regularly on smartphones, while 17% had often received “extremely violent or gory images”, and 35% had been sent a sexual image or message by a stranger.

Failing mental health service and courts are overwhelming police in Scotland

Police Scotland is “overwhelmed” by the “appalling” demands made on officers, its chief constable, Jo Farrell, has said.

These demands are the result of failing mental health services and a court system that is not functioning well, she added. Farrell criticised other agencies for not stepping up to the mark. “If somebody’s threatening themselves or a danger to other people, that’s absolutely where the police should be,” she said. “But we are babysitting people who are not criminals, they don’t meet the threshold to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act but we feel the need to wrap around them because there’s nobody else.”

Farrell also estimated that Police Scotland spent £3m of overtime last year on court appearances, while a third of officers go to court on a rest day or annual leave day, affecting their work-life balance.

One-day mental health workshop improves teenagers’ mood for six months

A one-day school workshop based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) led to small improvements in teenagers’ mood and stress levels for at least six months, a trial has found.

The trial was designed to assess whether a one-day course could have benefits for teenagers aged 16 to 18. The workshop was offered to students who felt they were experiencing stress, worries or low mood.

Three therapists delivered the course to groups of 16 pupils. It involved teaching them about CBT and techniques for relaxation and mindfulness, offering practical tips about time management and getting enough sleep.

In 57 schools in England, 900 pupils were randomly selected to attend one of the workshops or to use existing mental health systems, such as being directed to health services.

After the workshops, the pupils were allowed up to three further phone calls with the therapists for support.

Those who took part in the workshops saw a decline in their symptoms of depression, compared with the control group, of just over two points on a 67-point scale, which is classed as a small effect.

MPs demand a rethink on mental illness

A team of MPs has published a report criticising the current biomedical approach to mental illness, and arguing for a more holistic approach to mental health care.

A more holistic approach would address the social, economic and psychosocial factors contributing to mental distress, they say.

The all-party parliament group, Beyond Pills, argues that anti-depressant prescriptions are often inappropriate and unnecessary. The report, Shifting the Balance Towards Social Interventions: A Call for an Overhaul of the Mental Health System, says: “While rising long-term use is associated with many adverse effects, including withdrawal effects, it is not associated with an improvement in mental health outcomes at the population level, which, according to some measures, have worsened as antidepressant prescribing has risen.”

The report proposes six principles for mental health reform, including recognising the social and relational nature of most mental health issues, addressing social determinants of distress, promoting positive narratives to support recovery, using psychiatric drugs with caution and reducing over-prescribing.

AI-generated drugs can lead new era in fight against disease, biotech chief says

The makers of the world’s first phase two AI- generated drug have said that AI will have a transformative effect on the development of new drugs.

Traditional drug discovery costs between $2 billion and $6.1 billion over 12 years, while the pre-clinical phase alone can cost about $700 million. In contrast, it is hoped AI-driven approaches can reduce the costs of the pre-clinical stage to approximately $4 million.

Alex Zhavoronkov, founder and chief executive of Insilico Medicine, said: “AI aids in understanding the root causes of diseases and identifying the proteins driving these diseases. This process, known as target identification, is crucial for pinpointing which proteins to target for new drug development.”

He added that AI “excels in designing small molecule drugs. These molecules are engineered to inhibit or disable the target protein without affecting other proteins in the body, ensuring minimal side effects.”

AI is also able to optimise the selection of experimental systems and predicts outcomes, reducing time and cost, he said, adding: “It also assists in personalised medicine by matching the right drugs to the right patients, increasing the success rates of clinical trials.”

Care homes trial VR walking for residents

Residents of Fairfield Residential Home and Mon Choisy care homes in Oxfordshire have been taking part in a trial of virtual reality (VR) technology to improve their health and mobility.

Using VR technology, they can walk up to three kilometres a session, at a virtual location of their choice in the UK or overseas, without a needing to leave their chairs.

The VR headsets are connected to specialist seated treadmills, though an option of a safety-enhanced standing treadmill is also available for those up to it.

Care workers can accompany residents on the virtual hikes via a tablet, allowing them to talk about the sights as they go.

The trial has been successful, enabling residents previously limited to tens of steps per day to “walk” for up to 40 minutes at a time.