Mental Health Starts With our Youth

At Cure Kids, we recognise that mental health is a significant part of child health and we’re currently funding $2.2 million of mental health research that focuses on early intervention, education and support initiatives. We know that if we don’t recognise early and intervene promptly, there can be detrimental outcomes later in life and increased public health costs in the long term.

Every day, thousands of Kiwis are affected by mental health issues in some shape or form – anxiety, depression or ADHD. The stats are hard-hitting, particularly for our children – one in four Kiwi kids will experience a mental health issue before the age of 18 and fifty percent of mental health conditions start before the age of 12.

Many of us are trying to understand why this is happening when we’ve got a good social welfare system, a beautiful country, healthy environment, and less poverty than many other countries.

It’s time to take a holistic approach to what makes a healthy child. It’s time to acknowledge that good child health isn’t limited to physical health such as overcoming ear infections, cellulitis or leukaemia – it’s time to recognise that mental health is as important as other health conditions affecting our youth – and can be just as deadly.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist and University of Auckland Professor Sally Merry, who is also Cure Kids Chair of Child and Adolescent Mental Health, is leading the way with her research and development of a range of e-therapies using smart technology to deliver engaging and immersive therapies to support good mental health, either through intervention or prevention for children, adolescents and their parents.

Professor Merry is committed to finding better outcomes for this major health problem. She says working closely with young people allows us to have a long-term positive impact on their mental health, particularly with intervention initiatives during the pre-school and adolescence years – both times where these interventions can have the greatest impact due to the rapid neurological and developmental changes occurring during these periods.

As Mental Health Awareness Week approaches (8-14 October), I’d like to acknowledge the great work the Mental Health Association is doing, as the dedicated organisation focusing on mental health, as well as put the spotlight on some of the research Cure Kids is funding in this space.

Current mental health research projects:

Super Kids App

This app is in development and designed to help parents manage challenging behaviour in their pre-school children and translates best-practice therapeutic techniques for parents to the app to provide them with advice help their young children get a better start at achieving and maintaining good mental health. Super Kids will be rigorously tested in 2019 and then be freely available to the public.


SPARX is an online avatar fantasy-based game for 12 to 19 year olds with mild to moderate depression. Designed with input from young people and based on an evidence-based ‘talking therapy’ called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), it’s been tested in clinical trials show it helps teenagers who are feeling down, depressed or anxious. While many counsellors and psychologists offer CBT, SPARX is free to download and can be used in addition to face-to-face talking therapy, or as an alternative for those who prefer a self-help approach.

High-intensity Interval Training

Dr Nigel Harris, from AUT, is assessing the effectiveness of intensity exercise in schools to reduce mental health issues. This research has been made possible by joint funding by Cure Kids and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s National Science Challenge, ‘A Better Start’. Currently, 400 students from eight low decile schools around the country are trialling the teacher-led intervention which is being built into the curriculum. Dr Harris’ team hope to link improvements in general aerobic and muscular fitness, and psychological wellbeing. If successful, this intervention will be scalable to more schools.

Myteen-increasing competence and mental health literacy

Dr Joanna Ting Wai Chu (University of Auckland) is leading a project that will develop an SMS-based mobile intervention to support parents of 12 to 15 year olds by giving them confidence and mental health literacy. The app is being developed in consultation with parents and then it will be tested in a randomised controlled trial.

Where do we go from here?

While focus and support needs to be on individuals and their families, we see this as a bigger generational fix – we also need to address social deprivation across housing, education, health, social isolation and inequalities in outcomes by ethnicity which can all have a direct impact on mental health.

We’re not stopping until we see more research and solutions rolled out in New Zealand – Cure Kids will continue to fund research into mental health, both in prevention and support initiatives, as every Kiwi kid has the right to enjoy a healthy childhood, both physically and emotionally.

Click here to find out more about our current mental health research projects