REACH Diary Study

30 Nov 2020

Taking a deep dive into the impact of school closures and COVID-19 policies on the mental health of young people

Photo of three REACH posters side by side

To celebrate the launch of the Qualitative Applied Health Research Centre (QUAHRC), the REACH project team reflect on the progress of their Diary Study, and the value of qualitative data in mental health research.

Georgina Miguel Esponda, REACH Research Associate

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists and restrictions continue to change, it has become increasingly important to capture the experiences of young people and to understand the impact of this turbulent period on their mental health.

REACH (Resilience, Ethnicity and AdolesCent mental Health) is an ongoing study of adolescent mental health in inner-city London schools that has been gathering data from over 4000 young people from diverse backgrounds over the last 4 years. REACH recently invited young people to complete an online questionnaire to capture the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of young people. As part of this new stage of data collection REACH has also begun to collect qualitative data, in collaboration with the QUAHRC, through a Diary Study funded by the Maudsley Charity and King’s Together Fund.

Using qualitative methods to generate new insight

The REACH Diary Study aims to generate in-depth information about the day-to day experiences and circumstances of disadvantaged young people during the COVID-19 crises, including the lockdown, school closures and the transition back to school. The study began in the first week of September as young people returned to their schools after a long period of home schooling amidst ongoing restrictions. Participants were invited to take part in an initial interview to reflect on their experiences during lockdown. Following this they were asked to complete weekly diary entries over a period of two months using a phone app to video, audio record or write their responses. Unlike interviews, diary methods do not rely on retrospection, but provide insight into thoughts and feelings as they occur in real time, helping us to understand how children experience and make sense of the events around them. The use of audio diaries and smartphones in qualitative research is a recent innovation that promises to facilitate engagement and communication with this group of young people.

"The digital diaries are providing us with a vivid picture of how the pandemic is affecting young people in their day to day lives. They enable participants to talk about what is important to them in a way that is directed by them, as they choose when, how and for how long they talk about their concerns. This is generating very personal accounts of how young people are coping with the challenging circumstances in which they live and study. There is an immediacy to these data that can help us to understand what needs to be done to support adolescents now, in the midst of the pandemic, and in the months to come."  - Vanessa Lawrence, Collaborator and QUAHRC Director

One of the aims of the study is to improve representation of young people who are vulnerable or from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are at greater risk of developing mental health problems and may be experiencing the crises more acutely than others. Exploring the lived experience of young people across settings can illuminate how individual circumstances may compound or mitigate the risk of mental health problems caused by the pandemic.

“As part of the REACH study, we are collecting a wealth of quantitative data relating to the impact that the pandemic, and associated restrictions is having on the mental health of young people. With the collaboration of the QUAHRC team, analysis of the data from the Diary Study will be absolutely invaluable to help contextualise and explain the quantitative findings of the study, and design strategies to support the mental health and wellbeing of young people.” - Charlotte Gayer-Anderson, Research Fellow

Looking ahead

Twenty-nine young people have been recruited so far. The analysis of these data is in its early stages, but it is evident that the diaries are generating captivating stories. The range of effects experienced by the study participants due to lockdown is fascinating with some reporting the formation of closer family and friendship ties alongside detrimental effects including heightened anxiety caused by increased pressure for continuous academic performance. Interestingly, some participants have identified beneficial aspects of remote study, for example the capacity to work at their own pace and without distractions from classmates. However, others describe suffering from the loss of their school learning environment during lockdown and feel that the limited communication that they had had with teachers during this period had had a negative effect on their academic progress. School and education remained a prominent theme throughout the participants’ diaries.

The study will provide an incredible amount of rich data thanks to the generous participation of young people, the support of their parents and schools.

The REACH project is based at King’s College London, for more information visit the REACH Project website.

Woman writing on a big whiteboard diagram with text and diagrams talking about what the reach project involves