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Ciara Thomas

PhD student

Children, young people & families, Health inequalities, Public Mental Health

University of Bristol

Project title

An examination of risk factors for poor mental health and mental health inequalities among young women and exploration of possible interventions in work and further educational settings 


Judi Kidger, Lucy Biddle, Myles-Jay Linton (University of Bristol), Obi Ukoumunne (University of Exeter)

Research interests

My research interests include women’s health, mental health and health inequalities. I also have a particular interest in qualitative research and patient public involvement and engagement.

Project summary

The prevalence of mental health difficulties is high and on the increase among young women aged 17-19 years; the proportion with a probable mental health disorder rose from 13.4% in 2017 to 24.8% in 2021, with as many as 76.4% reporting possible eating problems. While much policy and research has focused on the potential of schools to support young people’s mental health, there has been less of a focus on the settings in which this older age group work, and on ways in which to ensure that mental health is supported during this key time of transition. This mixed methods studentship will use secondary longitudinal data analysis, qualitative methods and stakeholder workshops to improve understanding of the reasons for the rise in poor mental health among young women aged 17-19 years, and to co-produce an intervention to improve support available to this population. 

Indicative research questions: 

  1. What are the key risk factors for poor mental health and for mental health inequalities among young women aged 17-19 years?
  2.  What are the views of young women aged 17-19 years – in colleges of further education (FE), workplaces and non-degree apprenticeships) – as to why there are increasing rates of poor mental health among their age group? 
  3. What potential interventions in FE colleges and/or workplaces may improve mental health, and reduce mental health inequalities among young women aged 17-19 years? 

Ciara's Q&A

  • What has been your career journey so far?

    I graduated from the University of Exeter with a BSc in Medical Sciences. During my Medical Sciences degree I produced a qualitative systematic review on first responder responses to mental health crises in the community. I also completed a professional training year with the Patient Public Involvement and Engagement team. To have a career in public health research, I undertook the Master of Public Health at the University of Exeter, for which I produced a qualitative systematic review and line-of-argument synthesis on experiences of menstruation in schools in high income countries. Following my graduation, I then worked as a systematic review analyst at a health economics consultancy before relocating to Bristol to begin my PhD.

  • Why did you choose to do a PhD in public health research?

    I chose to do a PhD in public health research to continue my career pathway in public health research. I have wanted a career in public health since my Medial Science degree, where I specialised in health research. Undertaking health research projects and placements, including a work experience with the Public Health team at a Local Authority, have consolidated my wish to have career where I could contribute towards reducing health inequalities.

  • What is your research focused on?

    This PhD is focussed on the gender differences in adolescent mental health and will involve identifying gender-specific risk factors for poor mental health and mental health inequalities, and qualitatively exploring girls and young women’s explanations for mental health inequalities. This will aid the development and co-production of a mental health intervention tailored to girls and young women.

  • Why is it important?

    Adolescence is a formative time of life where new stressors can make young people vulnerable to poor mental health. Gender differences in the prevalence of mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders, are well established. Girls and young women report twice the rate of mental health problems compared to boys and young men. Given the detrimental impact of mental health problems during adolescence on later life, it is imperative we confront this gender disparity. Understanding the gender-specific risk factors associated with girls and young women’s mental health will aid development of effective interventions to address these mental health inequalities.

  • What do you like about being a part of the NIHR School for Public Health Research?

    I have really enjoyed being part of this supportive and encouraging community. Getting to know the other SPHR researchers was particularly helpful when settling into the PhD and it’s always inspiring to speak to other researchers about their work.

  • What skills have you learnt and/or are hoping to learn as part of your PhD?

    My research experience is mostly qualitative, so I am hoping to widen my research expertise and improve my quantitative data analysis skills. I’d also like to develop my public speaking skills and to further improve my PPIE skills to involve young people in my own research.

  • What do you hope to do after completing your PhD?

    After completing my PhD I hope to continue a career in public health research, perhaps working in academia or local government.

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