Understanding the relationship between mental health difficulties and educational outcomes in children and young people

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: University of Exeter Medical School

Abstract

Anxiety and depression ("emotional disorders") are among the most common mental health conditions in children and young people (CYP), and are linked with long-term impairments in health, education, employment and wellbeing. In recent years, the UK government has proposed greater integration between mental health and education, with schools recognised as a key setting for the prevention, identification and treatment of common mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. As such, schools have become a major focus of the discussion about the mental health of CYP. My research explores the ways in which children's mental health and educational outcomes are related, which is important in order to better understand how schools can influence and support young people's mental health.

During my PhD, I explored the association between emotional disorders and school absence through four research studies, each using different methods. My PhD research found evidence for a clear link between emotional disorders and school absence, particularly for depression, and especially in relation to unauthorised school absence. This shows that professionals who work with CYP in clinical or educational settings should be aware that high rates of absence might be a sign of an underlying emotional problem, and suggests that attendance data might help schools to identify CYP who require additional mental health assessment or intervention. In addition, my research shows that taking steps to support CYP's mental health may serve to improve their school attendance and, therefore, their academic attainment. This is important given that schools' main function is to educate, and provides a "hook" to encourage schools to prioritise pupils' mental health.

While my PhD research identified a link between emotional disorders and school absence, my findings also highlighted further questions that remain unanswered. For example, can we improve CYP's school attendance or academic attainment by providing them with interventions targeted at improving their mental health? How effective would the use of attendance or attainment data be as a method of screening for potential mental health problems in schools? And what are the potential mechanisms, or pathways, through which emotional disorders might impact on CYP's educational outcomes, or vice versa? My goal is to pursue these lines of research and continue exploring the ways in which mental health and education are related. This research has the potential to help us find better ways to identify CYP who are experiencing mental health problems and ensure that timely intervention is provided to those in need, as well as highlighting the important role that schools have to play in the mental health of CYP, which is highly relevant to health and education policy.

The fellowship would help me to achieve this goal by providing me with a platform to build networks and collaborations with researchers, practitioners, CYP, parents/carers, policy-makers and other organisations working in school mental health; to attend training courses to help me continue developing my research and professional skills; and to apply for additional funding to continue my research on this important topic. During the fellowship I will also conduct a small research project with the children's mental health charity Place2Be, to investigate whether their school-based mental health interventions help to improve children's school attendance or academic attainment. I will also use time during the fellowship to publish my research in academic journals and blogs, and to present findings at conferences and seminars, in order to maximise the impact of my research and ensure the findings are widely shared with those who serve to benefit from it.

Publications

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