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School summer holiday experiences may be putting poorer children’s mental health at risk

28 March 2019

Teenage girl

The mental health and wellbeing of children from poorer families may be at greater risk in part due to less positive school summer holiday experiences, new research has revealed.

The study, led by researchers from Cardiff University, is the first to examine how young peoples’ experiences during the long summer holiday might explain socioeconomic differences in mental health and wellbeing upon return to school.

Gathering self-reported data from 103,971 children (11-16 year olds) from 193 secondary schools across Wales, the research found that children from poorer backgrounds were more likely to report loneliness and hunger during the summer holidays, and were less likely to spend time with friends or engage in physical activities.

Young people from poorer families also experienced worse mental health and wellbeing upon return to school in the autumn.

“Childhood and adolescent inequalities have worsened in recent years resulting in poorer health and wellbeing for young people and families,” according to Dr Kelly Morgan from Cardiff University’s Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer), who led the research.

“Children from low-income families are often entitled to free school meals during term time, but finding enough money for nutritious food during the summer holiday periods can be challenging for many families.

“Limited affordable opportunities for school holiday activities and the high cost of childcare can also limit young people’s opportunities to participate in social activities and interactions, and increase their risk of loneliness.

“The challenges faced by low income families in the holidays have been recognised in the UK and internationally, with an increase in charitable and government funded school holiday provision, particularly for those families experiencing poverty.

“While earlier work has shown that socioeconomic status is associated with adolescent mental health and wellbeing, no study has considered the role of experiences during the school summer holidays.

The message from our research is clear: young people from poorer families are at a higher risk of experiencing loneliness, social isolation, physical inactivity and hunger compared to peers from more affluent families over the summer holidays and in turn more likely to report poorer mental health and wellbeing on return to school.

Dr Kelly Morgan Senior Research Fellow, DECIPHer

Of all summer holiday experiences, the research found that loneliness had the greatest association with reports of poorer wellbeing and mental health with nearly one in six young people reporting frequent experiences of loneliness during the summer holidays.

It’s hoped the research will help encourage government, at all levels, to consider more targeted support to poorer children.

Dr Morgan said: “Our findings suggest that school holiday interventions, which are able to reduce negative summer holiday experiences like loneliness, hunger, social isolation, physical inactivity may have a role to play in reducing socioeconomic inequalities in mental health and wellbeing on young people’s return to school.

“That said, it is important to acknowledge that school holiday interventions provide a short term fix; structural solutions, albeit likely to require considerable investment, are vital in preventive efforts going forward.”

The research, Socio-economic inequalities in adolescent summer holiday experiences, and mental wellbeing on return to school: analysis of the School Health Research Network / Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey in Wales, was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.