Mental health in schools

Earlier this year, researchers based at the Evidence Based Practice Unit (EBPU) at UCL , a unit dedicated to mental health research and innovation in childhood/youth, published an article focusing on the prevalence of mental health problems in schools (Deighton et al., 2019).  

Background and aims for the research – why was it needed?

Policy and research are increasingly focussed on the early identification and prevention of mental health problems in children and young people, based on earlier reported that 1 in 10 experience problems. However, recent evidence suggests that estimates might be higher, and vary according to population.  

The study aimed to explore the prevalence rates of mental health problems of adolescents in schools, as well as the characteristics which influence the odds of adolescents experiencing such problems.

How was the research conducted?

Online surveys were completed by children in Years 7 and 9, during a teacher-facilitated session, and following consent. Ninety-seven English secondary schools who were involved in the HeadStart programme were selected to take part, covering six geographical regions. The final sample consisted of 28,160 adolescents, with the majority (51.2%) of participants aged between 11-12 years in Year 7.

What kind of measures were used?

To assess self-reported mental health difficulties, researchers used the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. Four categories of problems are assessed within the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire – emotional, conduct, peer-relationship, and hyperactivity/inattention. Demographic ‘risk’ factors were also explored and this included: Special Educational Needs status, Free School Meal eligibility, Child in Need status, and ethnicity.

What did the researchers find?

Results indicated that 40% (42.5%) of schools reported an elevated risk of adolescents experiencing problems with emotional symptoms, conduct, and inattention/hyperactivity. Those in the ‘high risk’ groups were divided as follows: emotional symptoms (18.4%), conduct problems (18.5%), inattention/hyperactivity (25.3%), and peer-relationship problems (7.3%). Risk factors that increased the odds of adolescents experiencing mental health problems included deprivation (FSM), Child in Need status, gender, ethnicity, and age.

What did the researchers conclude?

Two in five young people were experiencing difficulty in the majority of mental health problem areas assessed (emotional, conduct, and hyperactivity). Risk factors included gender, deprivation (Free School Meals), Child in Need status, ethnicity and age.

However, the researchers cautioned that the increased rates reported could be due to greater recognition/reporting, and/or measurement issues (e.g., self-report may have resulted in higher estimates than a diagnostic tool would report).

The full article can be viewed here.

Blog post written by Dr Rachel Moss (Twitter: @DrRMoss), Research Associate on the PGR Wellbeing project at the University of Portsmouth (School of Education and Sociology).