University of Bristol: Major £2.8 million UKRI research programme to explore mental health outcomes for care-experienced young people

The four-year programme is led by an interdisciplinary team from the universities of Bath and Oxford, in collaboration with colleagues at Cardiff University and the University of Bristol.

The programme aims to identify key processes linked to the mental health and wellbeing of care-experienced young people, with a specific focus on psychological process and the role of support systems and services, to identify targets for future intervention and prevention programmes. The work will be supported by Adoption UK and Coram Voice, as well as three panels of care-experienced young people.

By involving young people with direct experience of foster care, residential care and/or adoption, the researchers want to develop a deeper understanding about individuals’ pre-care experiences (ie. challenges they faced before coming into care), their experiences in care and at school, as well as how individuals see themselves and others, and manage their emotions.

One in 30 UK children are taken into care at some point before their 18th birthday. Many of these young people have experienced abuse, neglect, and other difficulties. Once in care, they are often separated from siblings and live with multiple carers, and this ongoing instability can compound their early experiences and have long-term consequences.

This topic addresses a pressing issue for practitioners and policymakers. The research team hope that their findings will lead to improved understanding of the needs of care-experienced young people, and improved outcomes, alongside more practical support for social workers, teachers, mental health professionals, adoptive parents and foster carers supporting these young people.

University of Bath Co-Principal Investigator, Dr Rachel Hiller from the Department of Psychology explained: “We know that care-experienced young people have very high rates of mental health difficulties and, if left unaddressed, that this can have lifelong consequences for their wellbeing. We don’t want to accept poor outcomes as an inevitable part of being care-experienced. Care-experienced young people deserve high quality research on how we can better support their needs.”

University of Oxford Co-Principal Investigator, Dr Lisa Holmes added: “We are delighted to be awarded this funding and we firmly believe that the research programme will facilitate the development of an evidence base to move beyond stating the problem. We will focus on mechanisms, and in particular those that are potentially malleable for earlier interventions.

“Ultimately, this is not only about building resilience among care-experienced young people but also building more resilient systems and services to support them. In the long-term we hope that this work will help to positively impact policy and practice.”

Professor John Macleod from the University of Bristol’s Medical School, said: “Children and young people in public care live with extreme health inequality, particularly in relation to mental health. This research programme aims to discover reasons for this that provide opportunities to intervene more effectively. We hope to learn how to meet the needs of care experienced young people better and help them have happier and healthier lives.”

The research will use existing national data from approximately 14,000 care-experienced young people and will also include new longitudinal studies, involving 600 young people aged between 10-18, their carer(s), adoptive parent(s) and/or social workers.

Sue Armstrong Brown, Adoption UK’s CEO said: “The number of adopted young people seeking help for their mental health is rising. We know that trauma suffered in early childhood has lasting impacts on wellbeing, especially during tricky times like the transition from adolescence to adulthood. This research will help us develop a deep understanding of the challenges these young people face, and the things we can do to give them an equal chance to thrive.”

Linda Briheim from Coram Voice added: “Understanding how transitions impact on children in care and care leavers mental health and well-being and how they can be best supported to deal with these changes is incredibly important. Coram Voice are excited to be part of a research programme that explores these issues.

“As a charity committed to giving children and young people a voice in their care, Coram Voice are delighted to be facilitating young people’s panels with children in care and care leavers to co-produce the research. This will ensure the research is grounded in their experience and can identify solutions that can truly make a difference to their lives.”

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