A new U.K. analysis finds that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help improve the mental health of children and young people with long-term physical conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease, chronic pain and epilepsy.
“Children and young people with long-term health conditions face enormous challenges. As well as their physical illness, many of these young people suffer from mental health problems as a consequence of their condition,” said Fiona Lockhart, co-investigator from the Biomedical Research Centre Patient & Public Involvement Group at University College London.
CBT is a type of psychotherapy in which negative thought patterns are challenged in order to treat mood disorders or alter unwanted behavior patterns.
Research has shown that children who struggle with long term health conditions are four times more likely to experience feelings of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues than those who are physically healthy.
“The two things that are needed alongside managing a medical condition like this are something to help the family manage and something to help with the children’s emotional problems that so often go alongside these medical conditions,” said consultant pediatrician Professor Stuart Logan.
The team also found that parenting programs offered some benefit in reducing behavioral problems in children with acquired brain injury and/or cerebral palsy.
Some studies in the review showed that the children valued treatments that addressed a range of needs rather than just their mental health. The opportunity to meet and build a supportive relationship with people who are managing their long term condition was also seen to help some young people by providing them with a sense of hope for the future and skills to manage their physical and mental health.
“As well as looking at whether treatments worked for these children, we also included studies that explored the experiences of people giving and receiving the treatments,” said study author Dr. Liz Shaw from the University of Exeter Medical School in England.
“These studies highlighted the benefits of building good relationships and providing treatments in what feels like a ‘safe space’.”
Throughout the study, the team worked with a group of children and young people who provided a real-world perspective on the issues they face. They were particularly disappointed in the lack of available research and urge researchers to do something about it.
“The mental health of children and young people is important and offering the best response is vital,” said study author Dr. Michael Nunns from the University of Exeter Medical School.
“When we set out to do this research we were hoping to make recommendations about what works to support children and young people with long term conditions who are also having difficulties with their mental health. However, we were disappointed in the lack of good quality evidence available to guide treatment decisions for these children.”
The systematic review is published in the journal Health Technology Assessment.
“The exciting thing about this project is that it provides researchers with a roadmap for what to do next — we need to work sensibly with parents and children to carefully design treatments and test them in a way that helps us understand whether they actually work,” said Logan.