Mental health among UK secondary pupils worsened sharply in pandemic, study shows | Young people

Secondary school pupils in the UK experienced significantly higher rates of depression, social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, and overall worse mental wellbeing during the Covid pandemic, research shows.

Cases of depression among secondary school pupils aged 11 to 13 rose by 8.5% during the pandemic compared with a 0.3% increase for the same cohort prior to Covid, according to a comparative study by researchers at the University of Oxford’s psychiatry department.

The researchers found that girls’ mental health deteriorated more than that of boys during the pandemic. Girls were also more likely to find the return to full-time schooling difficult.

The students who were most resilient during the pandemic were those with plenty of social interaction and support, including a supportive school environment, good relationships at home and a friend to turn to for support during lockdowns. Even partial school attendance during lockdown put students in a better place to adjust to returning to school full-time than no attendance at all, the study found.

Willem Kuyken, the study’s lead and professor of mindfulness and psychological science at Oxford’s department of psychiatry, said: “This study shows that to promote better mental health and adjustment among young people, we need policies that foster home connectedness, friendship and a positive school climate and consider young people’s individual differences, needs and vulnerabilities. Also we can see that full school closures should be avoided to protect the adjustment of young people.”

Kuyken said more research was required “to understand both what places young people at risk and what protects them under challenging circumstances”.

The study showed that cases of significant social, emotional and behavioural difficulties increased by 7.9% for teenagers during the pandemic, compared with 3.5% for those before, while general poor mental health increased by 12.8%, compared with 4.5% before.

The researchers found that students who had a poor school environment but a supportive family life had improved outcomes during the pandemic, while those with the reverse struggled more.

While other research has suggested that mental health declined during the pandemic, this study is the first to use a comparison to pinpoint the effect on mental health of successive lockdowns, and shed light on the risk factors.

The pupils involved in the study were recruited when they were aged between 11 and 13, and then had their mental health and wellbeing assessed at four different time points over three years. More than 6,300 pupils participated in the research during the pandemic, with the final follow-up taking place in spring 2021, while 864 students were assessed before the pandemic, with final data collected in autumn 2019.

The project is funded by Wellcome and is a partnership between the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, the University of Exeter, King’s College London and University College London.

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