We spoke to Dr Louise Birrell about her work in adolescent mental health and alcohol prevention and the new app she is developing called Mind your Mate.
I am a Postdoctoral Research Fellow working within the Prevention team at the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use. My research focuses on mental health and alcohol use during adolescence. Adolescence is such a critical time in which healthy/unhealthy habits are formed and when mental health and substance use issues increase. I really believe adolescence is a key time for understanding the development of these issues, and for intervening and changing the life course of a young person.
I finished school and had no idea what to do… I spent my first three years at university exploring my interests through a Bachelor of Social Science, majoring in Anthropology. I will be forever grateful for the breadth and richness of knowledge about the human experience this degree gave me. However, I was left wondering about the nitty gritty of human emotions and relationships, so I went on to study psychology and later complete a PhD in public health with Nickie Newton, Tim Slade and Maree Teesson. During this time I saw the power of research and the huge potential it has to impact people lives.
It has been really exciting working on large-scale prevention projects such as the Climate Schools Combined study, a randomised controlled trial of an online prevention program for both mental health and substance use, which ran in 71 schools and with over 6,000 adolescents across NSW, WA and QLD. We showed that scalable, low cost online prevention is feasible and effective in reducing the trajectory of substance use and anxiety across adolescence.
Something I am most proud of is partnering with schools and young people to design and trial new prevention approaches. In 2019 I received a three-year fellowship from Australian Rotary Health to lead the development of a smartphone app to help young people better support their friends, which we are calling ‘Mind your Mate’. We have been working closely with experts, young people and software developers to produce a prototype of the app and are now looking for Sydney high-schools willing to trial it with their Year 9 cohort, so get in touch if you are interested! Our aim is to empower young people with the skills and confidence to support peers and promote help-seeking when their friends are going through a tough time. For example, times when young people notice that a friend may be feeling down, stressed out, not themselves or might be trying alcohol or other drugs.
As I mentioned we are currently recruiting high schools in the Greater Sydney region to take part in a randomised controlled trial of the Mind your Mate intervention. We’re also trialling a teacher-led trial of the Preventure intervention – a brief personality-targeted program to reduce substance use and enhance wellbeing in high school students.
These interventions aim to upskill adolescents to better support their friends and understand how their personality traits shape their decisions. We hope these will lead to reductions in drug and alcohol use and distressing mental health symptoms.
Now more than ever young people are facing increasing uncertainty and hardships. It’s critical we are proactive in supporting them during their formative years, providing them with skills to manage their wellbeing that they can carry throughout life.