As part of SPHR’s Public Mental Health Programme, researchers Rhiannon Barker and Greg Hartwell have published a new paper about school culture and mental health. Here, they tell us about their work and what they did.
By Rhiannon Barker and Greg Hartwell
Adolescence is a precarious time for young people’s mental health. Prof John Wright, speaking to BBC Radio 4 about the ‘Born in Bradford’ cohort study (following the lives of 13,000 families as their children grow up), recently spoke of the rise in mental health issues being reported by adolescents, suggesting that as many as one in three children from the study may be ‘suitable’ to report to mental health services. We need to change our focus, he suggested – away from the ever-growing expectations put on over-stretched primary and secondary services – to consider more preventative work, paying attention to wider contextual factors including the broader environments and cultures within which adolescents live.
School settings – where young people spend such a significant proportion of their formative years – are one such key environment attracting renewed attention from those with an interest in promoting positive mental health in young people.
In 2021, we conducted a piece of NIHR-funded, case-study research with inner-city London secondary schools, exploring the links between school culture and student mental health. We conducted in-depth interviews and focus groups, overall encompassing 22 students, 11 members of staff and 6 parents. This work was done in the period following national school closures, just as children were returning to school in the Spring of 2021. Staff were facing significant pressures to offer additional academic and social support, particularly to the most marginalised young people on whom the impact of the pandemic had been particularly detrimental (Ford, John, and Gunnell 2021). Against this backdrop, characterised by high levels of uncertainty and anxiety for many children, we sought, as far as possible, to keep our presence light-touch, reducing any administrative burdens on school staff. To maximise the value of the study to the participating schools, each was also offered a confidential report providing findings specific to them.
Our research questions, developed pre-pandemic, sought to understand how school culture impacts on student mental health, identifying potential gaps in guidance and provision in order to better support student mental health in secondary schools. However, as the implications of the pandemic in relation to adolescent mental health became more evident, we incorporated the significance of this context into our research, also interrogating the particular changes COVID-19 imposed on school culture and mental health support structures.
The findings reflect the complexity of factors impacting on student mental health, and these are examined in the paper at different system levels. At the macro level, we noted the considerable differences in school mental health provision, as well as challenges in the identification of student mental health needs. We ask how the mental health of students can be routinely measured and emphasise that protecting staff mental health is an integral part of maintaining a healthy system (it was apparent, particularly in times of significant pressure such as a pandemic, that staff mental health was a largely overlooked area in itself).
Finally, we explored the particular pressure on schools, post-pandemic, to demonstrate good academic performance (‘catching up’ on any ‘lost learning’) and how this may at times impact negatively on holistic student development. We argue instead that there may be value in re-framing the apparent conflict between academic goals and personal development – moving towards an educational approach which encompasses the complementarity of these aims. Our paper thus builds on previous work by Brooks (2014) to suggest that promoting physical and mental health in schools can create a virtuous circle, reinforcing attainment whilst improving wellbeing and allowing children to flourish.
As a next step, we are building on some of our findings to strengthen our understanding of how young people’s mental health can be supported in non-clinical settings. Greg has secured an NIHR fellowship exploring the commercial determinants of mental health in young people, and Rhiannon is looking at how mental health issues and school exclusion may mediate involvement in criminal gangs.
Read previous blog by Rhiannon Barker and Greg Hartwell Recruitment challenges of school-based research in the wake of Covid-19