This project focuses on developing understanding of how school culture can be changed in order to better manage substance use challenges within a secondary school setting and, in turn, to improve mental health outcomes for students. In this context, substance use refers to tobacco, e-cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.
All children and young people experience emotional difficulties as a normal part of growing up, but the number of young people developing more serious mental health issues is increasing. Unhealthy behaviours that impact mental health are similarly engrained in these early years; over 80% of adult smokers, for instance, have started in their teens. Substance use more broadly is one of the key challenges schools face in relation to children and young people’s mental health, given the range of health risks it creates both in the short and long-term.
Our study aims to identify whether any further support to schools would help address the challenges substance use poses for efforts to improve school culture and student mental health. Ultimately, we should be able to contribute a much richer understanding than is currently available of: the challenges that substance use poses for a school’s efforts to improve school culture and mental health outcomes for students; how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected these challenges; and whether schools require any further support in this area.
To undertake this, we plan to follow a qualitative case study design, which will enable an in‐depth examination of these complex relationships between substance use, school culture and young people’s mental health. We will work in partnership with third sector colleagues to identify a secondary school in the London area to act as our qualitative case study site. The case study methodology will include:
• a rapid scoping of relevant literature
• a series of up to 10 qualitative interviews with the school’s leadership, staff and parents
• four participatory focus groups with students
• documentary analysis of school policies and reports.
We will work closely throughout the project with members of the SPHR Public Partner Network and members of the education sector to ensure our findings are presented in a way that is useful and relevant to individuals working in the education sector and the wider public .
We will work in collaboration with Bristol colleagues undertaking the linked Participatory Action Research project to develop a toolkit to help those in the education sector, including support on tackling substance use in school settings.
The toolkit will include resources to support school staff, as well as resources to support student-led initiatives aiming to improve school culture. It will also provide advice on supporting young people to collaboratively research their own experiences and/or environments, which is known as a Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach. Taking this approach may help schools to deal more effectively with the specific challenges posed by substance use.