Blog post Part of series: Researching education and mental health: From ‘Where are we now?’ to ‘What next?’
Continuities in mental wellbeing from adolescence into early adulthood
We are concerned here with the extent of mental wellbeing and, in particular, distress and other difficulties with wellbeing, and whether such difficulties continue as young people move from adolescence into early adulthood. The discussion is based on data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE) now called Next Steps. In 2004, 16,000 year 9 students were surveyed, and these were followed up in seven annual waves. In 2015/16 a further eighth wave was conducted when the young people were aged about 25, in which 7,700 responded.
The analyses presented here are of waves 2 and 8. Both of these waves included the administration of the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), a self- administered screening procedure for minor (non-psychotic) psychiatric disorders which is suitable for adolescents and adults. The GHQ is oriented to short-term disorders, not longstanding attributes. The research version consists of 12 items, has high reliability and is unidimensional (Goldberg & Hillier, 1979). In a previous analysis we have treated negative responses on between one and three items as showing minor issues of mental wellbeing, and negative responses on four or more items as showing more serious issues (Attwood & Croll, 2015).
Mental wellbeing in adolescence
In wave 2, when the young people were 14 or 15, just under half (47.7 per cent) reported no difficulties, while almost a third (32.9 per cent) gave between one and three negative responses, and about a fifth (19.4 per cent) gave four or more negative responses. The highest levels of negativity were reported in relation to feeling ‘constantly under strain’ (27.3 per cent) and ‘feeling unhappy and depressed’ (24.1 per cent), while the lowest levels concerned not feeling ‘capable of making decisions’ (6.4 per cent) and not feeling ‘able to face up to problems’ (8.5 per cent). Female students were considerably more likely to report difficulties than male students, with 24.5 per cent reporting four or more issues compared with 11.8 per cent of males. Problems of wellbeing were also associated with reporting being bullied and truanting, but there were no associations with attainment or socioeconomic status (SES).
Mental wellbeing in early adulthood
Ten years later, when the respondents were young adults, they again completed the GHQ. Overall, reported problems with wellbeing were higher among the young adults than they had been when the same young people were aged 14 or 15. (Of course, this analysis is complicated by the fact that response rates were much higher in the earlier survey. However, GHQ scores at wave 2 were not a predictor of responding at wave 8 so we have some confidence that this result is not an artefact of participation rates.)
‘The highest levels of negativity were reported in relation to feeling “constantly under strain” (27.3%) and “feeling unhappy and depressed” (24.1%).’
About a quarter (24.3 per cent) of the young adults reported four or more negative responses, up about 25 per cent from the earlier figure, and the proportion with no negative responses decreased to 43.1 per cent. As before, the items showing the highest negatives were feeling ‘constantly under strain’, now up to 34.5 per cent, and feeling ‘unhappy and depressed’ which remained virtually unchanged at 25.0 per cent. The largest proportional increase was being unable to ‘enjoy normal day to day activities’, now at 18.8 per cent compared to 10.3 per cent earlier. As before, females were more likely to report problems of mental wellbeing than males; although the difference was not as great as when they had been adolescents, indicating that the increase with age had been greater for males. There were weak associations with SES and graduate status, with people in lower SES categories and non-graduates slightly more likely to report problems.
Continuities in wellbeing over time
The association between mental wellbeing in adolescence and early adulthood is shown by the correlation between scores at the two points in time. The overall correlation coefficient was 0.24, a modest level of association showing that earlier levels of wellbeing were predictive of later levels but by no means determined them. For example, of those reporting no wellbeing issues at wave 2 about half (51.4 per cent) again reported no issues at wave 8, but one in six (17.3 per cent) now reported four or more issues. Of those reporting four or more problems at wave 2, just over a quarter (27.4 per cent) had no negative reports at wave 8; however, almost four in 10 (38.5 per cent) again reported four or more negatives. So, for about a quarter of young people there were no negative responses at either point, while for just under 10 per cent there were relatively high levels of problems of wellbeing which continued from adolescence into adulthood.
The GHQ is explicitly designed to measure short-term disorders, not longstanding attributes. These results show that for most young people the issues raised are of a short-term nature, but for a minority they indicate persistent and longer-term problems of wellbeing. The association (albeit a weak one) with SES and attainment (that is, graduate status) which emerged for the young adults but had not been apparent earlier, raises questions about the possible influence of wellbeing on careers and qualifications.
Gaynor Attwood and Paul Croll
Attwood, G., & Croll, P. (2015). Truancy and wellbeing among secondary school pupils in England. Educational Studies, 4(1–2), 14–28.
Goldberg, D. & Hillier, V. (1979). A scaled version of the General Health Questionnaire. Psychological Medicine, 9(1), 139–145.