The causes of mental health wellbeing and mental health illnesses for our children and young people are well documented, as are the wider structural or socioeconomic contexts that are clear and reliable factors that impact upon mental health. However, specifically focusing on the impact of school-level factors on children and young people is a relatively understudied field.
Interestingly, a recent study has begun to explore the contribution of schools to the rise in mental health issues amongst young people.
Key findings on pupil's mental health from the MYRIAD study:
Data was collected between 2016 and 2018 (so pre-pandemic) from pupils in their first or second year of mainstream secondary education settings which were selected to be representative of settings across the United Kingdom. The study assessed whether school-level factors were associated with pupil mental health. Although there is limited literature available, schools have a small but significant influence on pupils’ mental health and that ultimately, they do have a specific role to play in the long-term mental health of their students.
Key findings included:
- schools in urban locations, with a greater proportion of adolescents eligible for free school meals and with more White British pupils, were attended by pupils with poorer mental health.
- a more positive school climate was associated with better mental health.
- contextual factors – such as characteristics of pupil population – have a small but significant impact on the mental health of young people and that having a greater awareness of these factors could allow for a proactive focus on likely strategies that could be implemented.
What is interesting to note is that, particularly in the light of the global pandemic, it has been suggested that a wider approach is needed – one that encompasses the school community as well as the school itself – as this will be essential to prevent further deterioration in the mental health of children and adolescents. An approach not dissimilar to the Sure Start Programme (1998-2008) whose aims were to support parents / families in promoting children’s health and development which in the longer term would impact positively on their mental health and wellbeing.
There is a growing evidence base (Charlton, 2020; Ford et al., 2021) that school-level interventions aimed at promoting social-emotional learning and those that target school-wide positive behaviour can enhance resilience and thus the functioning of young people, and that for young people living in deprived areas, such interventions may be particularly important. Equally, there are several ‘green shoot’ initiatives that could contribute to this wider approach. Partnerships and campaigns such as the “Full Time” campaign to ensure no child goes to bed hungry (https://tomkerridge.com/full-time-meals/) may be well positioned to play a vital role in bringing about that link between schools and their communities when considering approaches to addressing mental health issues – of which we know that poverty is one of the key contributors (Elliott, 2016).
To conclude, the construct of mental ill health and school-level influences appear to be relatively slight but undoubtedly not insignificant. Once again, it is the impact of the distinct features of the school’s location that have the most impact – be that positive or negative. Going forward, a strong, supportive partnership between the school and its community has the greatest potential to yield increased enhancements in the mental health of the young people living in those areas. Maybe Helen Keller has a point …
We provide mental health training in schools and colleges, help local authorities and charities develop mental health strategies. School and college leaders and staff will be empowered to support the mental health needs of the whole school community including developing knowledge of other local mental health services and clinicians.
Calear, A, L. & Christensen, H. (2010 ). Systematic Review of School- based Prevention and Early Intervention Programs for Depression. Journal of Adolescence, 33 (3): 429 – 38.
Charlton C.T., Moulton S., Sabey C.V., and West R. (2020) A systematic review of the effects of schoolwide intervention programs on student and teacher perceptions of school climate. Journal of Positive Behaviour Interventions.
Elliott, I. (June 2016) Poverty and Mental Health: A review to inform the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Anti-Poverty Strategy. London: Mental Health Foundation.
Ford, T. et al (2021) The Role of Schools in Early Adolescents’ Mental Health: Findings from the MYRIAD Study. JAACAP.
Glazzard, J. (2018) The Role of Schools in Supporting Children and Young People’s Mental Health. 3 Education and Health Vol.36 No.3.
Jamal, F., Fletcher, A., Harden, A., Wells, H., Thomas, J. & Bonell, C. (2013). The School Environment and Student Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Ethnography of Qualitative Research. BMC Public Health, 13 (798): 1–11