Healthy Start Stories |
Michelle Achterberg

Psychological issues in young people: ‘How can we make young people more resilient to external influences and improve their mental health?’

The mental health of young people is under pressure. More and more young people are struggling with feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Due to the increase in psychological problems, the demand for care is also rising sharply. How can we improve the mental well-being of young people and try to prevent psychological problems in this target group? Michelle Achterberg, researcher and assistant professor, and president of the Healthy Start Young Board, discusses this.

“It seems paradoxical. We live in a society with a high standard of living: there is enough food, we have access to education, and there are plenty of jobs. However, in recent years, the number of young people with mental problems has increased significantly. Many young people experience stress and feel scared or unhappy. This is burdensome, especially because mental well-being is one of the most important conditions for healthy development. It is unclear why so many young people struggle with psychological problems. It is likely a combination of factors. Young people are confronted daily with high performance pressure and significant global issues like the climate crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has also had an impact on the mental well-being of young people. Another important factor is social media, where young people primarily see the perfect aspects of life while also being frequently exposed to rejection online. For example, “Why are they at that party and not me?” or “Why does almost no one react to my TikTok video?” I want to know how we can make young people more resilient to external influences such as social rejection and thereby improve their mental health.”

Many young people experience stress and feel scared or unhappy.

The influence of the brain on behavior

“As long as I can remember, I have been interested in the development of children and young people. I still remember wanting to work at a daycare center as a child. Over the years, that desire changed, and I became increasingly interested in behavioral problems, such as ADHD and autism. How do children with these conditions navigate through life? By the way, I was quite a rebellious teenager myself and skipped school classes from time to time. But my interest in child development persisted, and I decided to study psychology.

During that my bachelor and research master, I learned about the brain, neurotransmitters, and hormones and discovered how much biological factors influence our behavior. After my studies, I did an internship with Eveline Crone (Erasmus University Rotterdam), which led me to the field of neuroscience and the development of children and young people. The internship fueled my enthusiasm for research, and shortly afterward, I began my doctoral research on the brain’s response to social rejection in young children. It was fascinating to do, especially because there had been very little brain research done on children aged seven and eight.

I discovered that at this age, the brain already strongly responds to social rejection, similar to the brain responses of teenagers. At the same time, I also saw significant individual differences: some children only shrugged after social rejection, while others became very angry. Now, I want to know if these different reactions during childhood are predictive of mental health later in life. With that knowledge, we might be able to make a child more resilient to psychological problems much earlier. I recently received a VENI grant for this research idea.”

I was quite a rebellious teenager myself and skipped school classes from time to time

Give young people insight into how their brains work

“Within Healthy Start, I focus on how we can improve the mental health of young people and provide timely assistance to young people who are vulnerable to psychological problems. Currently, our research plans are not set in stone. That’s actually what makes working within Healthy Start so special. As researchers, we don’t set a rigid research agenda; we do it in collaboration with children, young people, their parents, as well as organizations like the Kindertelefoon and the National Youth Council, and scientists from various fields such as pedagogy, media studies, and psychiatry. In the coming period, we’ll be busy determining the exact structure of our project.

One concrete goal that we already have in mind is to share knowledge about how the brain works in relation to mental well-being with children and young people. Think, for example, of a dedicated subject on this in school. I actually find it strange that such a subject doesn’t already exist. Understanding how your brain works better helps you understand yourself better and hopefully makes it easier to talk about psychological problems. It’s quite normal for teenagers to sometimes feel down. It’s part of brain development at that age. Many girls, for example, have no idea that their menstrual cycle can affect how they feel. It’s not about trivializing psychological problems, but about normalizing them. This also means that professional help is often not immediately necessary; sometimes, talking to classmates can already help.”

It's actually strange that children and young people don't learn how their brains work and how this influences their mental health.

President of the Healthy Start Young Board

“The fact that adolescents have the need to make their voices heard is also shown by scientific research. Yet, the vast majority of adolescents does not feel heard or seen. And that’s a shame. We also know that adolescents are more satisfied with their lives when they feel heard. At the same time, as a society, we could benefit from the out-of-the-box ideas of young people. Especially now, in a time when we are dealing with complex societal problems, such as increases in social inequality and a climate crisis. These major societal themes that determine the lives of new generations require creative solutions. Therefore, it is even more important that today’s generation of youth can be contribute to their own future.

In addition to being a scientist within Healthy Start, I am also the president of the Young Board. This is a place where young scientists, such as PhD students, assistant professors, and postdoctoral researchers, can meet and exchange experiences. Working in a large program like Healthy Start is enriching and offers many opportunities, but young researchers can also feel lost at times. That’s why we help each other. For example, by exchanging knowledge about research methods. But also by translating Healthy Start’s far-reaching visions and ambitions into concrete research projects and publications.”

Collaboration over competition

“I feel completely at home within Healthy Start. There is room for my research ideas, and I gain governance experience. Of course, there are also challenges. We must continue to ensure that we don’t get bogged down in vague plans and grand missions. Additionally, as Healthy Start, we are at the forefront of a new way of conducting science. We collaborate extensively and work from the bottom up. I know that there is interest from other parties in conducting research in this way. However, experience has shown that it can be quite challenging at times, especially when there is macho behavior. I truly believe in collaboration over competition. If you can set aside your own ego, you can go much further.”

Michelle Achterberg’s Healthy Start perspective
“The way of working within Healthy Start closely aligns with my own values. I believe it’s crucial that the results of my research go beyond just scientific publications. Within Healthy Start, we have a different mindset. We develop our research with various involved target groups, and a publication is not an endpoint for us but rather a starting point. The beginning of societal impact.
My dream is that in ten years, it will be entirely normal for education to address the impact of the brain on mental well-being. In my view, the education system does not adapt enough to current societal challenges. That really needs to change. I look forward to delving into that in the coming years.”

Michelle Achterberg is involved in the ambition ‘mental well-being of youth’ and President of the Young Board.

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