Puzzling Findings in Studying the Outcome of “Real World” Adolescent Mental Health Services: The TRAILS Study
Background. The increased use and costs of specialist child and adolescent mental health services (MHS) urge us to assess the effectiveness of these services. The aim of this paper is to compare the course of emotional and behavioural problems in adolescents with and without MHS use in a naturalistic setting. Method. Participants are 2230 (pre)adolescents that enrolled in a prospective cohort study, the TRacking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey (TRAILS). Response rate was 76%, mean age at baseline 11.09 (SD 0.56), 50.8% girls. We used data from the first three assessment waves, covering a six year period. Multiple linear regression analysis, propensity score matching, and data validation were used to compare the course of emotional and behavioural problems of adolescents with and without MHS use. Results. The association between MHS and follow-up problem score (β 0.20, SE 0.03, p-value < 0.001) was not confounded by baseline severity, markers of adolescent vulnerability or resilience nor stressful life events. The propensity score matching strategy revealed that follow-up problem scores of non-MHS-users decreased while the problem scores of MHS users remained high. When taking into account future MHS (non)use, it appeared that problem scores decreased with limited MHS use, albeit not as much as without any MHS use, and that problem scores with continuous MHS use remained high. Data validation showed that using a different outcome measure, multiple assessment waves and multiple imputation of missing values did not alter the results. A limitation of the study is that, although we know what type of MHS participants used, and during which period, we lack information on the duration of the treatment. Conclusions. The benefits of MHS are questionable. Replication studies should reveal whether a critical examination of everyday care is necessary or an artefact is responsible for these results.