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First detailed insight into young people's wellbeing before and during the Covid pandemic.

Published: 6 April 2023

Data analysts at Public Health Wales have provided the first detailed insight into how young people in Wales were feeling and behaving in the years before and during the pandemic.  They have taken the results of a large school based survey and reported the data on a local basis, helping us to understand regional differences in health and wellbeing of young people in Wales for the first time.

The data is presented in an online dashboard that is publicly available. It presents data from a survey by the School Health Research Network (SHRN) at Cardiff University. 

SHRN’s Student Health and Wellbeing (SHW) survey is the largest of its kind in the UK, with more than 123,000 students in years 7 to 11 from 202 schools in Wales taking part in 2021/22. The wide-ranging survey, which is undertaken biennially, asks students about aspects of their physical and mental health and social relationships, with anonymised data shared with schools to inform localised practice. 

Mental wellbeing has significantly decreased since 2017, particularly among girls.  The percentage of girls reporting low mental wellbeing has increased by 9.5 percentage points between 2017 and 2021.  More girls than boys also consistently reported that they feel a lot of pressure from schoolwork in every local authority area in Wales, and this difference has been increasing each year.  In the most recent data the highest mental wellbeing scores were reported in the Vale of Glamorgan, Swansea and Cardiff and the lowest were reported in Conwy, Torfaen and Merthyr Tydfil.

Zoe Strawbridge, analyst at Public Health Wales, said:

“This data is so valuable as it gives us the first detailed insight into young people’s health and behaviour in each region of Wales. It can be used to help schools, local authorities and health bodies to inform policies and practices.”

There is some good news - since 2017 fewer students have reported being bullied or bullying others, this is particularly apparent in older students.  Those who have been bullied age 16 in 2021 was 25.5 per cent compared to 30.7 per cent in 2017.

As well as mental health, wellbeing and school life, the survey explored a number of different topics, including family and social life, physical activity and diet, relationships and substance use. 

Other findings include that one in five (20 per cent) of young people reported having ever tried an e-cigarette. Overall, three per cent of young people reported current tobacco smoking.  Just 16 per cent of young people met the recommended physical activity guidelines of at least 60 minutes per day. The data shows that physical activity levels have reduced year-on-year between 2017 and 2021 with less than 12 per cent of girls meeting physical activity guidelines compared to almost 21 per cent of boys in the most recent year of data.

In an effort to improve young people’s emotional wellbeing, experts at Public Health Wales are encouraging schools to adopt the Welsh Government’s Whole School Approach to Emotional and Mental Wellbeing.  The approach recognises that every aspect of school life can impact on health and wellbeing and provides guidance to help everyone work together to improve it.  SHRN data plays a critical role in identifying the issues that need to be addressed and a way to evaluate progress.

Emily Van de Venter, a Consultant in Health Improvement at Public Health Wales, said:

“Public Health Wales is helping schools to use the Welsh Government Framework on a Whole School Approach to Emotional and Mental Wellbeing to support their pupils in this post pandemic era. This recognises that every aspect of school life can impact on pupil's mental health and well-being and that learners, parents and carers, teachers and governors should all work together to improve health and well-being in the school community. The environment and ethos of a school should be just as important as their curriculum and policies. We are actively encouraging schools to sign up to this approach and supporting them to make improvements.”

One of the schools who piloted the approach was King Henry VIII School in Abergavenny. Assistant Headteacher Jake Parkinson says it has proved beneficial. 
He said:

“Being a pilot school for the whole-school approach to emotional and mental well-being has been a really positive learning experience for the school.  This framework has helped us celebrate all the great things that we already do, but has also aided the school to specify areas of further development, helping us to prioritise needs through evidence-based self-evaluation.”  
Speaking about findings gathered from SHRN,

Ian Gerrard, Head Teacher at Ysgol Aberconwy, said:

“This data is really important to us as a school as it gives us a detailed insight into how the pandemic has impacted young people in Wales. As a result, our pastoral team is well placed to provide support both to individuals and to groups of children who are expressing concerns about their mental health, and we are able to plan strategically to provide activities that will help them.”

SHRN is a partnership between The Centre for Development, Evaluation, Complexity and Implementation in Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer) at Cardiff University, Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data (WISERD), Welsh Government, Public Health Wales and Cancer Research UK. It is funded by Health and Care Research Wales, the Health & Social Services and Education & Public Services departments, Welsh Government and by Public Health Wales. School membership as of 2021 includes all maintained secondary and middle schools in Wales.

Join the Observatory team for a webinar on 18 April at 2pm covering demonstrations of how best to use the dashboard, with opportunities for questions and discussion from the dashboard creators, the Welsh Network of Healthy Schools Scheme and academics from DECIPHer.