As part of the University of Bristol’s #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re spotlighting women from the School for Policy Studies who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic by carrying out world-class research.
Dinithi Wijedasa, Senior Lecturer at the Children and Families Research Centre is surveying the mental health of children in State Care in England through the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Your research has focussed on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health of children in care. Could you tell us a little more?
Understanding whether COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on more vulnerable child populations, such as children in care, has been identified as a national-level priority by the SAGE committee.
At any given time in England, there are nearly 80,000 children being looked after by the State (also referred to as children in care). Although high prevalence of mental illness in children in care is widely acknowledged as a serious concern, the current evidence base lacks understanding of long-term mental health trajectories and mental health service provision for children in care. Before the pandemic, we had already started two research studies funded by the ESRC and the Nuffield Foundation to answer these two questions.
We were already planning to carry out a survey of children in care in 2020 for the ESRC funded study. This therefore provided a real-time opportunity to collect information on mental health and wellbeing of children in care during the Covid-19 pandemic. We were also able to collect information on other aspects of children’s lives, which have previously been associated with mental health such as: the strength of their relationships with carers; their feelings about school; social work support; friends; access to green spaces; access to support; and their wishes and feelings. These are aspects in children’s lives that would have also been impacted by the pandemic. We are currently analysing the data from the first wave of data collection where we had responses from 930 children in care from 18 local authorities. I am pleased that we also received further funding through the UKRI Covid-19 call to extend this survey to a longitudinal survey so that we can collect this information two more times to look at mental health of children in care over a period of 18 months.
Our other research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is a collaboration with colleagues at the Bristol Medical School where we are working towards creating a new national-level linkage between the national pupil data held by the Department for Education and national mental health service data held by the NHS. As mental health service data on children are collected monthly, we are hoping that a successful linkage will enable us to establish a new and relevant evidence base on the characteristics of children in care who are referred to mental health services, their prognosis and pathways through Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), and the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic on mental health of children in State care. We are currently working closely with the Department for Education and NHS-Digital to agree the way forward as we are using new legal gateways and data sharing processes to access and link national-level inter-Departmental datasets.
2. What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic?
The biggest research challenge was having to adapt our methodologies to suit the restrictions that came about due to the pandemic.
All research fieldwork was stopped by the University as well as Government Departments as we went into the first lockdown. This had a drastic impact on the research timelines. We had to pause recruitment for the survey on the ESRC funded project and pause all project activities on the data linkage project as the Governmental Departments that we are working with paused all research activities to prioritise the Covid-19 response. All of us in the research teams were also working alongside extra pressures brought on by the pandemic such as adapting to homeworking, home-schooling and illness within the team. It was also a steep learning curve for us all in digital engagement and communication!
For me, it is a triumph that despite all these challenges, we have been able to support each other with empathy, kindness, and trust through 352 days of home working and teamworking (as you can see, I have not been counting!). Not having face to face meetings has not been a barrier to team working. It is a triumph that the University was able to switch swiftly and provide us the right digital platforms so that we can continue with our research activities. Despite the setbacks at the beginning of the pandemic, it is a triumph that we have achieved and celebrated research milestones such as receiving NHS ethics clearance for the data linkage project with no amendments and having 18 local authorities and 930 children and young people opt-in to our research!
It is a triumph that I am working with such hard-working colleagues who share the same vision as me to make real change with research. There is a huge responsibility placed on us to give timely and accurate information on this vulnerable group of children, which we hope to deliver throughout the next two years. Although it is extra pressure on the teams to report continuously rather than publishing end of project reports, we believe that sharing timely research information is important. We are continually engaging with local authorities at grass-roots level as well as well as the Governmental Departments at policy level and we will directly feedback our results at policy and practice levels so that we can help enable positive change in the mental health management and service provision for children in care.
Links to the research studies: