Helping young people with mental health problems earlier

Health & Technology Flagship PROTECt ME

Many young people in the Netherlands (between the ages of 12 and 25) struggle with mental health issues such as feelings of depression. They often have to wait a long time for adequate care. The aim of the Convergence Flagship programme PROTECt ME is to develop tools that will make it possible to identify these people sooner. The programme also wants to deliver technological solutions that can help young people faster and better, while at the same time relieving the burden on the care system.

As healthcare costs continue to skyrocket, Flagship lead Loes Keijsers says that it is becoming increasingly clear that the current care system is unsustainable. This means young people are not receiving help in time. That is a major concern for the Professor of Clinical Child and Family Studies (Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences): “You have to intervene as quickly as possible when people have mental health issues. If you don’t, the symptoms worsen quickly and the costs increase. Suppose someone drops out of school because he is down and anxious. Missing his final exams will affect him for the rest of his life.”


“You have to intervene as quickly as possible when people have mental health issues. If you don’t, the symptoms worsen quickly and the costs increase."

Putting more effort into prevention

The reverse is equally true, explains Keijsers: everything that goes well also has a knock-on effect throughout a life. “The waiting lists in youth care are very long and they are only expected to get longer. So we need to identify mild symptoms in good time and tackle them early on to stop things getting worse. Our core belief is that we can no longer be reactive in health care: we have to be proactive. That also means learning how to identify young people earlier if they are at risk of developing symptoms and also identify their more resilient peers.”

A key pillar in the PROTECt ME Flagship programme is therefore the development of new tools to monitor the well-being and wellness of young people. Such as practical tools like apps in which young people can monitor their well-being in playful ways. A second pillar is being able to determine more quickly which care (and level of care) or intervention a young person needs. “At the moment, we often see young people being sent from practitioner to practitioner. It takes too long for them to get the right care. We want to combine the knowledge of care providers with in-depth data analysis to develop things like an AI decision tool.”

Scalable and affordable

Technology opens up all sorts of new options which can also be included in treatment. PROTECt ME therefore aims to develop technology-driven treatment tools such as e-health applications, chatbots or tools based on virtual reality. “No final decisions have been made about the exact solutions and we actually want to explore them with young people in this project. A general prevention app can sometimes make all the difference. But it will never work for every target group. You can also use some tools in standard treatment programmes, in other words to deliver blended care. The idea is that care will become more scalable and more affordable,” says Keijsers


The project has major ambitions: the goal is to improve the well-being of young people and reduce the numbers coming into the mental health system. Keijsers believes that this is possible only if you combine the latest insights from all the relevant disciplines. That is why she believes the Convergence is so valuable. TU Delft, for example, has a lot of knowledge about AI; the Erasmus MC has experience with clinical practice and game design. Erasmus University’s expertise covers law and economics. “We need all the knowledge we can get to develop tools that work. It is only when all the relevant areas of expertise get involved and pool their insights that you can really achieve something.”

End users centre-stage

To check whether the tools scheduled for development are also likely to succeed in practice, both young people and care professionals are involved throughout the process. The tools need to tie in with how young people see the world and they also have to be practical for care professionals. “Take a chat box, for instance. We first have to prove that it will work in practice, and that the end users are positive. Otherwise, there’s no point at all. A project like this can be considered a success only when we have come up with something that young people and professionals actually use.”

For Keijsers, PROTECt ME is not just a research project: it must also become a movement of people who believe in prevention-driven care. In five years from now, the goal is to have societal stakeholders in place who can implement the interventions and tools. “Our community of people who believe in this philosophy will have grown by then. This is actually an invitation to everybody: if you have a project that ties in with this programme, join us.”