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The influence of mental health on educational attainment in adolescence

Teenage girl looking at phone unhappily
Published: July 2020


This study explores the impact of mental health and wellbeing on educational attainment in young people. The research aims of the study are to:

  • Identify the demographic and socioeconomic factors associated with mental health and wellbeing in adolescents
  • Investigate the extent to which educational attainment is determined by demographic or socioeconomic factors
  • Examine whether mental health and wellbeing has an independent association with attainment
  • Explore whether adolescent mental health and wellbeing is associated with the likelihood of being classified as not in work, employment or training (NEET) in early adulthood

Robust evidence of a causal link between poor mental health and lower academic attainment could further encourage education policymakers and schools to invest in mental health for a number of reasons:

  • Although schools appreciate the importance of supporting pupils' health and wellbeing, a proven link to academic outcomes can help boost the profile and resourcing levels currently attributed to mental health.
  • Evidence of a causal relationship with education would encourage investment in researching "what works" in supporting children and young people’s mental health.
  • In addition, evidence of a relationship between mental health and educational outcomes might point towards a fresh new approach to addressing social mobility. Those with the poorest health are often the most socially disadvantaged.


Early findings suggest that poorer mental health between the ages of 11 and 14, measured using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, is closely related to educational success later on at GCSE. Similarly, evidence is emerging that young people’s happiness with life as a whole is potentially linked to how well they perform at GCSE level. For the latest analysis, see the briefing paper at the bottom of this page.


This study uses nationally representative longitudinal data of more than 1,000 young people interviewed as part of the UK Household Longitudinal Study (Understanding Society) Youth Survey. Information from these young people has been linked to their educational records contained in the National Pupil Database (NPD). This study investigates all youth panel respondents with data on mental health and life satisfaction in wave 1 or 3 of Understanding Society, and with GCSE results at key stage 4.

This study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of their Secondary Data Analysis Initiative (ES/R005400/1). NatCen is carrying out this studying in partnership with the Dr Ann Hagell (Association for Young People’s Health), Prof. Stephen Stansfeld and Dr Melanie Smuk (Queen Mary University of London).


Findings: Briefing Paper, November 2019

Slides From Launch Event (6th November 2019)