Emily Widnall, Senior Research Associate and SPHR ResNet member and award holder, at University of Bristol, completed her ResNet project on Exploring the longer-term impacts of Covid-19 on young people’s mental health.
SPHR ResNet project funding allows early career researchers (ECRs) with an opportunity to gain experience of developing and leading their own research project, and to build their networks throughout ResNet and across the School. Read more about projects funded through this initiative here.
We asked Emily the following:
What are your main research interests?
My particular area of interest is in adolescent mental health and well-being and how this can be improved via school-based policies and interventions. I am really interested in the impact of peer relationships and social connectedness on young people’s mental health and well-being as well as aspects of the school environment that may impact mental health positively or negatively.
Can you tell me about your work with the NIHR School for Public Health Research?
I am currently working with Rona Campbell and Russ Jago on developing a School Health Research Network in the South West of England (SW-SHRN). The network aims to provide research evidence to schools on how to improve the health and well-being of adolescents.
I was also awarded ResNet funding (dedicated funding for early career researchers) by NIHR SPHR and therefore given the opportunity to lead my own study over the past few years. My ResNet Study aimed to understand early adolescent experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of school closures and social distancing measures on young people’s mental health and well-being.
What impact will this research have?
The South West- School Health Research Network aims to help schools and local authorities identify target areas of health and well-being need among students in order to focus resources more effectively to improve health outcomes. For example, if data shows students are experiencing high levels of anxiety, this information will be fed back to the school in a tailored report, and the school will be encouraged to look at interventions they can introduce to reduce anxiety. The project therefore seeks to improve adolescent health and well-being and thereby improve educational attainment.
The ResNet study was one of very few studies that had available adolescent mental health data pre-pandemic and the ability to track how young people’s mental health has changed overtime. The findings have therefore helped shape both a national and international picture of the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health. The findings were also included in a recent UK Parliament POST research briefing.
What made you choose a pathway in public health research?
I have always worked in research, but before joining the University of Bristol, I primarily worked within clinical trials and evaluating psychological therapies. Due to my interest in adolescent mental health in particular, I moved into school-based research projects with an aim to focus more on prevention and early intervention. Having worked on studies exploring routine monitoring of student mental health and well-being in schools, I became increasingly interested in school health policy. I really enjoy the collaboration opportunities involved in public health research and working more closely with policy.
What has been the highlight of your research career?
Although I was very nervous at the time, the highlight of my research career was being invited on Sky News Breakfast to discuss my study findings on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescent mental health and well-being. These were early survey findings that formed the basis for my ResNet application and subsequent award. It was the first time I’d received any press-interest in my research, so although it was nerve-racking, it was very exciting. I remember seeing the headline on the BBC News website and thought it looked really interesting, before actually realising it was our research!
What advice would you give to someone considering a career or involvement in public health research?
Follow your genuine interests and connect with colleagues who share those interests. There are lots of brilliant opportunities for early career researchers, I would encourage anyone to apply for the ResNet awards to gain experience as a Principal Investigator on a small scale study. My advice for the ResNet study is to not be overly ambitious with the size of the project given that they typically occur over 12 months and aim to include patient and public involvement at the planning stage, during the study and when disseminating findings.