Learning about mental health boosts children’s wellbeing, study finds

Young teenagers across Wales who had access to a training programme called Guide Cymru showed improvements in mental health scores

22nd June 2023 about a 4 minute read
“We believe The Guide is an effective intervention that can help both children and teachers understand that mental health problems are common-place, just like physical health problems, and that they should seek help and not try to hide the problem.” Nicola Simkiss, PhD student, Swansea University

Equipping children with resources and training in mental health can have a positive impact on their wellbeing, research has found.

Swansea University academics carried out a 10-week randomised controlled trial among 1,926 pupils aged 13 to 14 across Wales to assess the effectiveness of a mental health programme called Guide Cymru. This was based on a programme originally developed in Canada called The Mental Health & High School Curriculum Guide (or The Guide), which had proved effective among older teenagers. Guide Cymru was adapted by Swansea and Cardiff academics, in collaboration with the charity Action for Children, for use with younger teenagers.

The researchers found that pupils given access to Guide Cymru demonstrated improvements in nearly all areas, including mental health knowledge, better mental health behaviours, reduced mental health stigma and increased intentions to seek help for problems. The results have been published in the journal BMC Public Health.

Mental health literacy, the authors write, consists of several components. These include the ability to identify and recognise a mental health disorder, understanding of the risk factors and causes of mental health disorders and an understanding and knowledge about help-seeking behaviours.

Supporting people to cope with the stresses of everyday life

Good mental health, they write, is a “state of well-being that encourages individuals to be able to cope with the normal stresses of everyday life. Therefore, the promotion of good mental health behaviours in adolescents and young people is an important way to promote good mental health at an early stage.”

They add that the aim of a mental health literacy programme is “to improve knowledge about mental health and reduce the stigma that is often associated with poor mental health.”

The Guide Cymru consists of six modules: understanding mental health and mental illness, stigma myths and realities, information on specific mental illnesses, experiences of mental illness, help-seeking and finding support, and the importance of positive mental health.

Swansea PhD student and lead author Nicola Simkiss said: “It is devastating to see children and young people struggling with mental health difficulties that go both unreported and untreated.

“We believe The Guide is an effective intervention that can help both children and teachers understand that mental health problems are common-place, just like physical health problems, and that they should seek help and not try to hide the problem.”

Professor Nicola Gray, a Swansea University academic who is also consultant clinical and forensic psychologist for Swansea Bay University Health Board, said: “The Guide is important as it can be easily delivered as part of the school curriculum by teachers who know the students.”

Almost two in five young people report mental health symptoms

Gray hopes this will be the start of the process of embedding mental health education and intervention in schools: “The Guide can be the beginning of a process of open discussion about mental health and emotional challenges in schools, and how best our young people can learn about these problems and the most effective ways of seeking help when this is needed.”

The research was carried out in the context of increasing rates of mental illness amongst young people in Wales. One recent survey found that almost two in five young people in Wales, reported mental health symptoms, with almost one in five reporting “very high” mental health symptoms as reported on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire.

Dr Dave Williams, child and adolescent mental health adviser to the chief medical officer and Welsh government, said: “The Guide has proved an excellent resource to enable professionals to raise understanding and awareness of emotional and mental health and wellbeing. It plays a part in the Welsh aim of normalising emotional responses while building the capacity of communities to support children and young people who require specialist help.”

The plan now, said co-author Professor Robert Snowden of Cardiff University, is to follow up the research “to see if these changes in knowledge and attitudes can translate into better mental health outcomes as these children develop from adolescents to young adults.”

FCC Insight

This large-scale RCT to study the effects of providing training in mental health literacy to young teenagers has shown very encouraging results. Young people across the country are experiencing rising rates of mental ill-health, adding pressure to over-stretched services. If, as this research suggests, we can improve children’s mental wellbeing by equipping them with the resources and skills they need to cope with life’s stresses, then it would be good to see the Guide Cymru programme, a relatively low-cost intervention, rolled out elsewhere in the country.