Mental health prevention and intervention in Northern Ireland post-primary schools

  • Nicole Bond

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Childhood adversities, parental mental health and attachment style impact emotional regulation capacity and stress response. Individuals who have emotional regulation difficulties are increasing vulnerable to develop mental health disorders across their lifespan. Adolescence is a key developmental stage with increased levels of neuroplasticity. Mental health and wellbeing intervention and prevention at this age can reduce or mitigate the adverse health outcomes associated with biological vulnerabilities, adversities, and the social determinants of health such as poverty or social deprivation. Schools occupy a pivotal position within young people's lives and are well placed to support pupil emotional health and wellbeing development. However, the ability of post-primary schools in NI to offer mental health intervention and prevention resources was unclear before this research. The Department of Education (DE) did not monitor or oversee the school's role in this provision which hindered policy development. This thesis aimed to explore the NI ecological system's first and second-order networks that facilitated or prevented schools from offering mental health and wellbeing supports to pupils.

Secondary analysis of the Ulster University Wellbeing study highlighted the impact of early childhood adversities, including bullying, on lifetime rates of psychopathology. It showed that when the type of adversity is repeated across environments, i.e. when a person is exposed to verbal bullying in school and emotional abuse at home, they are more likely to experience a major depressive disorder or engage in suicide behaviours when compared to students with higher prevalence of adversity. This study highlights the importance of classifying bullying as childhood adversity, increasing pressure on the school environment to mitigate against such effects. A small-scale qualitative study with young men highlighted how exclusionary sanctions in response to classroom behaviours could impact pupils attitudes toward education and their access to support within the school environment. Both studies adopted a person-focused approach to uncover elements of the current school environment that potentially negatively impact pupil wellbeing.

The mental health and wellbeing provision in NI post-primary schools survey and a subsequent interview study with educators and education stakeholders demonstrated the resources and services available to NI schools when supporting pupil mental health and wellbeing. Taking an ecological approach, this research explored the first and second order networks linking the Education, Health and Community & Voluntary to young people's access to mental health and wellbeing support, highlighting how access is inconsistent across the region through schools. Recommendations of how NI can move toward a universal and easily accessible mental health and wellbeing model for young people emerged from this research. These recommendations informed the development of the Children and Young Peoples Emotional Health and Wellbeing in Education Framework (DE, 2021).
Date of AwardMay 2022
Original languageEnglish
SponsorsDepartment for the Economy
SupervisorDeirdre Heenan (Supervisor) & Siobhan O'Neill (Supervisor)


  • Education
  • Policy
  • ACES
  • Adolescence

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