Research Hub – Introduction to research – Full description
Why is research into youth mental health essential?
Youth mental health research is essential for good health, and to ensure happy, functioning young people is a moral obligation for society. It is because of research that we now understand much more about how and why poor mental health can start in childhood and why it results in many young people later facing mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety. Further still, mental health is related to physical health, for example the adverse childhood experiences young people face can predict serious physical health outcomes, and academic achievement. We also know that other serious mental health disorders, such as psychosis are most likely to surface in late teenage years and early adulthood, whilst young people are still in education.
It’s safe to say there is a lot going on during youth. The brain is still developing, particularly the prefrontal cortex, that is used for language and thinking skills. Young people are laying down the important hardware that will shape their adult behaviour.
Improving outcomes (Immediately and later life)
Our understanding of mental health is dependent on research, but research is not reserved for the ‘brainy’ that come in wearing white lab coats. Researchers are typically open individuals, who love to inquire about things, and learn more – much like teachers really! By researching youth mental health together, we can learn what specific challenges young people face, how developing things such as emotional regulation, social media literacy and gender identity affects their lives, and give them a voice in shaping the help they get to manage this.
What’s more is that teachers are ideally placed to capture the experience of young people, and provide invaluable insights into youth mental health. The aim of this content is to de-mystify research and give teachers a foundation in youth mental health research.
We will explain some of the jargon that surrounds youth mental health research and talk about the practicalities of being involved in research projects at your school. Some of the language used in research can be confusing, but whilst research can be complicated there are some fundamental concepts that are quite simple and easy to understand.
Some terms you may often hear being talked about in research are:
Hypotheses, independent and dependent variables
Generally, research is about investigating things. Researchers do this by asking questions and then seeking to answer them by collecting data.
The questions that researchers ask are usually in the form of a simple testable prediction which are referred as a “hypothesis”. For example:
Young people that transition from primary school to secondary school have high levels of anxiety
There are lots of ways we could go about investigating this. One such way is to collect anxiety data from young people before and after they have transitioned to secondary school to see how anxiety might have changed during this period. We could also compare the anxiety scores of young people that are about transition, are currently transitioning (on their summer break) and have just transitioned with young people that are yet to start the transitionary year or that have had a year pass since they transitioned to secondary school.
As we are determining the point of measurement for the young people here (what year they are in) we call this independent variable. What we are measuring at these time points (the level of anxiety) is what we call the dependent variable.
We can see that investigating anxiety in this way has real practical applications for supporting the mental health of young people. By charting the typical course of anxiety between primary and secondary school we can develop interventions and target them at the right time to help young people through this sometimes-difficult period.
Quantitative and qualitative data
There are two main branches of data, these are quantitative and qualitative data.
Continuing with the question ‘do young people that transition from primary school to secondary school have high levels of anxiety?’, we have decided to collect anxiety data to measure this.
But what exactly is anxiety data? How can we measure anxiety? The answer is there are numerous ways to measure anxiety. We might choose to use a questionnaire with rating scales that students can complete in class. The information gathered from these questionnaires would be quantitative data, because it consists of a quantity or amount – for instance the student scored a 4 on the anxiety scale, or 5 students answered ‘yes’ to whether they felt nervous about their transition to secondary school.
This gives us a great indication of the anxiety levels of the whole class, but also each student individually, relatively quickly. But there are other ways to measure anxiety that are also valuable.
For instance, if we wanted to know about the experience of the anxiety when transitioning to secondary school, we could ask students to fill out open-questioned questionnaire, or ask the questions verbally, like in an interview. This would be qualitative data, because it describes qualities or characteristics of what you are measuring.
The type of study we might carry out depends on the question we are trying to answer, and what we hope to do with the data.
‘Do young people that transition from primary school to secondary school have high levels of anxiety?’
If we hope to create an intervention to help students that are experiencing high levels of anxiety during the transition then we might want to develop a monitoring system, that enables you to ‘take the temperature of your class’ in terms of their wellbeing.
We’d have to think about the best way to get a true indication of the levels of anxiety in the students. One way to conduct research is by running an experiment. If you are able to change at least one thing, whilst controlling for all other variables, then this is an experiment. For example, you would be looking at pupils in different school years, whilst keeping other things that cause anxiety the same – like whether the student has exams that week.
There are two ways of running this experiment. We could compare the anxiety scores of the same students at three times: before they transition, during the transition (summer break), and after the transition. This is called repeated measures as the same students are tested more than once.
Alternatively, we could have three different groups of students: year 6s, year 6s on summer break, and year 7s. Because each group is separate from the other groups, we called this independent measures. The good news is that either way of running this experiment is valuable, the best way can be decided by you and your school, by considering what would be practically possible.
As teachers, I’m sure that you will be thinking it will be difficult to achieve this level of control in a classroom setting, and that can be the tricky thing about experiments. The classroom is not a perfectly sterile environment, and many factors are at play here. Other things that could affect the anxiety levels of the students will be called nuisance variable. These may be relatively easy to keep the same, for example whether the students have a big test in the next lesson. But other things, such as how much sleep the student got the night before or what mood they are in, may be trickier to control.
There is no need to lose hope – there are other types of studies, conveniently named non-experimental methods. To get a more realistic view of anxiety you might observe students in different years. One example of how to do this is to have a checklist of predefined behaviours that might indicate anxiety. Although this won’t establish cause and effect (nail-biting could be due to a habit, rather than anxiety) it does give us more of an idea of how the students behave in a natural setting.
Other non-experimental methods that are popular in schools include surveys, questionnaires, and interviews. What better way to find out if students are anxious than to ask them!
Or so we think – as this can have other difficulties such as the student not feeling comfortable enough to be honest, worrying that they may be judged for their answers, or that there will be consequences for them – this is known as self-report bias, the student’s answers will be biased by how they are feeling at the time.
An intervention can be a treatment or relationship that an individual – the student for instance – is part of that encourages them to change their behaviour or emotions, particularly when they are experiencing a difficulty, such as anxious thoughts and feelings.
Typically research that involves an intervention will require the participant to take a measure of the behaviour of interest (such as anxiety or wellbeing) at the start – called a baseline measure. Then, after the intervention has taken place, the participant will complete the same measure again giving a post-intervention measure. The baseline and post-intervention measures will be compared to look for changes. This change can help us answer three key questions about the intervention: does it work? how well does it work? and why might it work?
There are lots of different types of interventions, but the two main categories to be aware of are:
When an individual is given medication to improve a difficulty they are experiencing.
When an individual takes part in an activity, either accompanied by someone else such as a counsellor, a teacher, a parent, or by themselves, which aims to change their behaviour, or emotions.
Interventions are probably happening in your school all the time – for example strategies which teachers might try to improve scores in tests, such as buddying up with a higher achieving or older student. Research can help us formally evaluate and record just how useful different strategies are for your pupils, or highlight if something is doing more harm than good.
To keep things ethical, we must ensure that there is no detriment to anyone involved in the research.
We should make sure that the way the study is carried out protects children and young people, who may be more vulnerable to harm. If the research is not carried out in an ethical way, then there can be serious negative consequences, such as the withdrawal of the funding for the research, and dismissal of the project.
Youth mental health research is important. But it also touches on topics that some students may be sensitive about. It is always more important that if a child becomes upset during the research, or doesn’t want to take part, they are not made to carry on. They have the right to withdraw and any questions they might have completed already should be destroyed.
Another thing to consider is whether the participants fully understand the study they are taking part in, and agree to take part.
This is called informed consent. In our proposed anxiety study, we would have to ensure that all students understood what anxiety is. It would be best to let the students know the question that the research is answering, but if this would change the way they act in a way that might affect the results, then it is okay to indicate that the study is investigating an area, for example anxiety, and give the specific question after the data has been collected.
Imagine if we were carrying out this research with key stage 1 students. What changes would we have to make? It would be important to make sure we explained in a way that young children would understand. For example, we could explain anxiety in terms of worry, or use a short story to explain. Check out our section for ideas.
After the questionnaires have been gathered in, the interviews are over, or the observations are complete you will have a lot of data to be stored.
A common way of storing data is to allocate each student a number. Their data can be stored along with this number, on a spreadsheet. The list of names and numbers should be stored separately from the data, so that no one would be able to identify the student from the data spreadsheet. This is the basics of confidentiality.
Of course, confidentiality expands further than this, researchers and teachers should respect the privacy of students taking place in research, and should avoid discussing any answers that are given, or give out access to people who do not need to see the data.
As with anything a student tells you, if you have concerns about the safety of the student, you should follow your schools safeguarding procedures.
The practicalities of conducting research
Research teams wantto fit in with your current school schedule – we understand that between assessments, external visitors, field trips, absences and more, the school day can be busy and unpredictable. Communicating honestly with the researchers in your school about the flexibility you require is hugely important to a good working relationship – for instance if a certain class has a lot of absences that day the research team could work with a different class.
It is challenging to get ethical approval for research that requires pulling student out of class and getting them to participate in research away from their peers – which would disrupt your class time. It is much better to do research in the classroom for several reasons; the classroom environment keeps things as natural for the student as possible, so we can see their behaviour how it usually would be and avoid bias.Research in the classroom also avoids issues around space too – such as those times where it seems the only spare spot is in a corridor. These are just some examples of how researchers and schools can work together easily, and accommodatingly.
We’ve been through how research can benefit students and the knowledge basis, but what about the benefit for teachers?
School is a place for cognitive development (Alibaba & Nathan, 2010) and research in schools is critical to understanding how schools facilitate psychological development, and positive mental health.
It sometimes takes a very long time for research to be published, but once the data collection is finished the research team can share the preliminary results with you, and talk you through their perspective and the knowledge gained. The data will be specific to your school, or even your class, so the researcher can help you understand any particular problems that might be arising in your classroom, and help suggest things that could help.
What’s more, if research from schools highlights key areas of concern for staff or pupils then securing further research funding is much more likely, so more money can be allocated to understanding the school environment, and how to best support youth mental health.
Research can also be used to support calls for greater provision of youth mental health services, a much under-funded sector in the UK with 76% of parents stating their child’s mental health deteriorated whilst having to waitor Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services support, and of those who waited more than six months for support 85% stating their children’s mental health had deteriorated (Youngminds, 2018). Ultimately, by taking part in youth mental health research school staff can help us learn how to bridge the gap between referrals and support from CAHMS, and support students in the environments they are in every day.
To hear more about how research can be useful for teachers we at Breathe have developed the video below: