The research

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) has awarded Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) £382,000 to carry out a feasibility study involving 60 people aged between 12 and 18 which, if successful, will be replicated on a larger scale.

Half of the young people will be given a talking therapy called interpersonal counselling while the other half will undergo standard treatment to determine the effectiveness of the specialised counselling.

The study is called ICALM – Interpersonal Counselling for Adolescent Low Mood – and will be led by Dr Paul Wilkinson, an honorary consultant psychiatrist with NSFT and a lecturer in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Cambridge.

“Many teenagers have mental health problems but only those with the most severe symptoms are treated by the NHS,” he said. “Usually, young people with mild depression/low mood are treated in the community by staff employed by a local authority or the voluntary sector.

“The most common job title for these people is ‘young person’s worker’ and they often help young people by providing listening, practical support and advice.

“We already know from a study in Suffolk from between 2015 and 2017 that these staff can be trained to provide interpersonal counselling and most of the young people they supported said they got better.

“However, we don’t know if that was because of the specialised counselling or whether they would have got better anyway, which is why a randomised control trial is needed.”

What is interpersonal counselling?

Interpersonal counselling is a talking therapy which was developed in the 1980s to help people identify the relationship between their low mood and interpersonal relationships with a focus on one of four domains: grief, relationship disputes, big changes, and loneliness and isolation. Evidence shows that if a young person is supported to address relationship issues, their symptoms may diminish or disappear.

Other partners involved in the research are Norfolk County Council, Suffolk County Council, the University of East Anglia (UEA) and Point-1, a charity based in Norwich which offers professional support for infants, children and young people experiencing the early signs of mental health and emotional problems.

Delivering the intervention

Last month Dr Wilkinson and NSFT psychological therapist Viktoria Cestaro spent two days at the UEA training 13 staff from Norfolk and Suffolk to provide interpersonal counselling.

Depending on the individual’s need, this therapy is delivered over three to six sessions, each lasting between 30 and 60 minutes, in a community setting such as a school.

Dr Wilkinson added that young people will play an active role in designing and running the study, which will include a Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) Lead.