All children and young people experience emotional difficulties when growing up. However, for some young people these difficulties can lead to more serious mental health issues, which can stay with them into adulthood. Research suggests that the number of young people developing those more serious issues is increasing. As most young people spend a lot of time in schools, it is important to understand what schools can do to support their mental health. We are currently reviewing the existing research to identify aspects of school life outside what is taught in lessons that are important for mental health. We have found that developing a supportive culture in schools can promote and protect good mental health (through positive relationships amongst staff, students and parents, and by creating feelings of safety and belonging).
This study will therefore look in more detail at school culture and its impact on student mental health. The research team, in partnership with a mental health charity called ‘Off the Record’ (OTR), will work with four secondary schools in the South West to develop ‘participatory action research’ (PAR) projects. PAR is an approach in which people collaboratively research their own experience or environment. In other words, those who would ordinarily be research participants and those would ordinarily be researchers become a single group with a dual role. In this study, a group of staff and students in each school will work together, supported by a facilitator from OTR, to develop a shared understanding of what the culture is like within their own schools and to introduce activities or changes to make their school culture more supportive of mental health. They will then collect information to help them evaluate the impact of these changes in their schools and will make plans for further changes if required.
At the same time, the research team will also assess if this kind of approach can improve school culture and student mental health. To do this, they will observe the PAR group meetings, the interviews with staff and the group discussions with students within all four schools. In parallel, a second, smaller, research project will be conducted in one school, to understand how schools can better respond to students’ consumption of alcohol and drugs, which is a health concern closely related to poor mental health. This will be looked at through a mixture of interviews and focus groups with staff and students, observations of meetings and examination of school documents.
If the PAR approach is successful, the research team will use the learning from the four schools to develop a toolkit that other schools will be able to use. This will include: a definition of school culture; a detailed explanation of how improving school culture can lead to improving student mental health; and resources to support staff and student-led initiatives to improve school culture. The team will also share what they learnt from using this approach to deal more effectively with issues around substance use.