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Working together: Monitoring the mental health of children and young people during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic

Natasha Bance

This blog is part of our ‘Working Together’ series for Analysis in Government (AiG) Month 2022. Throughout the month we will be sharing blogs from colleagues across government to highlight the power of working together.

The Mental Health of Children and Young People (MHCYP) survey series provides England’s Official Statistics on trends in child mental health. The last face to face survey in the series took place in 2017, with an online follow-up in 2020 to look at the mental health of children and young people during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The project team included experts from:

  • NHS Digital
  • the Office for National Statistics (ONS),
  • the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)
  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Exeter

In 2021, we were tasked with completing a second follow-up survey. This would allow us to continue monitoring children and young people’s mental health during the pandemic.

How we worked together

To make sure there was no duplication of work, we clearly allocated roles and responsibilities for the project. By doing this, we could also make sure that we used each organisation’s areas of expertise. For example, NatCen’s extensive experience in online data collection ensured that an effective online survey was set up in short timescales.

All analysis was run by both NatCen and ONS using the statistical expertise of both organisations. All organisations helped with report writing and quality assurance. This helped us to create a high quality report.

We held regular Microsoft Teams meetings involving all organisations to share ideas and monitor progress. We were also able to use these meetings to involve all organisations when making decisions about the project.

A Microsoft Teams channel allowed us to review and edit documents together. This sped up the questionnaire development, analysis, and report writing.

Improving data and methods

We regularly interacted with the mental health steering group, which consists of representatives from a wide range of Government Departments, organisations, and Charites. We worked with them to make sure we understood the most important areas of interest.

We also reviewed the previous survey questions and methods to identify where improvements could be made. This led us to add questions on eating problems because we knew this would be an important area of interest for many users.

The mental health experts at the University of Cambridge and the University of Exeter were able to recommend questions that would be suitable for an online survey that could be compared to pre-pandemic data. They were also able to give us advice about how best to present and interpret the data we collected.

The experts from the ONS Data Ethics team helped us to make sure we thoroughly considered the possible effects of any changes we made to the survey. They also helped us to identify any actions we would need to take to mitigate any risks that could affect the quality of our data.

Understanding the findings

By working closely with mental health experts at the universities we could make sure that complex mental health data were correctly interpreted and clearly explained. This was particularly important with standardised assessment tools, such as the Strengths and Difficulties questionnaire which is used to identify possible mental health problems

Statistical expertise from ONS made sure that the data were weighted to be representative of the population and that we could work out whether differences between estimates were statistically significant. The Analytical Team at NHS Digital thoroughly quality assured the report to make sure it was accurate and clearly written.

We also asked for advice from other organisations. For example, we spoke to Long Covid topic leads through the Long Covid Working Group to make sure estimates on this topic were correctly interpreted and clearly presented. We also asked the Race Disparity Unit for advice on the suitability of estimates by ethnic group.

The publication was recognised by many users as an important source of information on many aspects of the mental health of children and young people during the pandemic. You can read the publication on the NHS Digital website. Many charities and mental health organisations posted on Twitter about the report and the report was quoted a number of times in a Parliamentary Debate. The publication would not have been possible without each organisation working together to share their expertise.

What’s next

Work has already begun on the next follow-up report. All organisations are continuing to work closely together on this project. The data collection started in April with results due to be published later in the year.

Cher Cartwright and Tracy Williams
Natasha Bance
Cher Cartwright is the Lead Analysis Manager for the Population Health Surveys Team at NHS Digital. Cher has worked for NHS Digital since 2013 and is responsible for the commissioning and delivery of MHCYP.

Tracy Williams is a Principal Analyst at the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Tracy has worked for the ONS since 2009 and is currently part of the Policy Evidence and Analysis Team. This is an analytical team that works with central government departments to provide responsive, cross-cutting analysis to help inform and evaluate priority policy areas.