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Team awarded £1 million to study treatment for anti-social teenagers

A team led by Professor Peter Fonagy, Chief Executive of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, has been awarded more than £1 million by the National Institute of Health Research to study the effectiveness of a treatment for anti-social behaviour in adolescents.

The study aims to evaluate whether a specialist intervention, multisystemic therapy (MST), is more effective at reducing long-term criminal behaviour in adolescents with serious behavioural problems than a standard treatment.

MST is a family and community-based intervention that focuses on chronic and violent young offenders working briefly but intensively giving support to families. It is recognised as probably the best treatment for tackling adolescent antisocial behaviour at its most intractable and destructive. However, it is intensive and costly (£15,000 per family) and the long-term effectiveness of the treatment has never been tested in the UK.

The £1 million funding supports an extension of an existing study funded by the Department of Education, Department of Health with the collaboration of the Ministry of Justice, involving almost 700 high-risk 11-17 year olds who were randomised to either MST or standard treatment. For the last 18 months, a team from UCL, Leeds and Cambridge has been assessing criminal behaviour, mental health, relationships, health and education of these teenagers. The additional funding will allow the team to continue to see how the lives of these teenagers unfolds for an additional 3.5 years.

Commenting on the award, Professor Peter Fonagy said: “If MST reduces the risk of criminal behaviour and improves the life chances of these young people then its expense is justified and we should all work to ensure that this specialist treatment service is available everywhere, not just in the 9 experimental localities that have participated in our study. Severe conduct disorder causes distress not just to the individual and their families but also to the communities where the young people live – we can do so much better for them.”

Serious juvenile offending is common and increasing in the UK. Many of these adolescents commit more crimes in adulthood and are far more likely to have later relationship and health problems and low educational achievement. Their cost to services is 10 times the average with lifetime costs of around £1.5 million per prolific offender.