Gordon Harold

Cambridge's new Professor of the Psychology
of Education and Mental Health

In an academic career that began in Ireland, and has taken him to the United States and the universities of Cardiff, Otago and Sussex, Gordon Harold’s most recent appointment is with the Faculty, as Cambridge’s first Professor of the Psychology of Education and Mental Health. He told us a little about himself, the importance (and challenges) of this exciting research field, and how it may develop in his new Cambridge role.

I grew up in Dublin and originally wanted to be a full-time athlete. It didn’t quite work out as I had planned, but helped to ignite my passion for psychology and the study of child development and mental health.

I’m originally from a working-class community in Dublin, where going to university was an option open only to a very select few. Like many of my peers, I saw sport as a pathway to a ‘brighter future’. At 13, I ran in the inaugural Dublin City Marathon and went on to compete internationally as a middle-distance athlete. That led to an athletics scholarship at Iowa State University in 1986. Not long after arriving, I participated in a 10km track race where I was lapped by two runners who would go on to win Olympic gold medals, and realised I needed a ‘Plan B’! But that soon revealed itself: my life was never the same after my first undergraduate lecture in psychology – I just couldn’t get enough of the subject and am still as excited by the subject and complementary academic and research disciplines as I was 30 years ago. I still enjoy running as well

The research area in which I work is about improving children’s life chances.

In summary, my research examines the factors that either positively or negatively affect young people’s mental health and development from birth to age 18+ years. It’s asking the question: how do we promote a well-functioning young person who is positioned to do well in life? To do that, it addresses the connections between domestic adversity – conflict between parents, for example – disorders such as anxiety and depression, and attainment at school. These problems and the factors that affect them need to be identified early and supported in the right way if we want to prevent them from causing life-long, debilitating conditions. That means directing the right professionals to the right targets, which in turn means understanding which targets to aim for, and how we implement effective interventions. It’s an exciting field that requires considerable flexibility, because the scientific knowledge base changes constantly.

There is a lingering, problematic, misconception that mental health and life chances are more about genetics than anything else. It’s a view we need to carefully examine and challenge.

A fashionable view – not least among some of our political leaders – is that the relationship between the school, home and community environments that children experience and children’s life chances, including mental health and academic attainment is minimal, because fundamentally it comes down to genetics. It’s even been suggested that we might be able to personalise education by looking at an individual’s specific genetic profile to predict what they will be good at. Scientifically, this is completely groundless – and it’s hugely problematic as a message. Imagine, for example, that you are a teacher working with a child with behavioural or emotional issues or a child disengaged from academic application. This line of thought suggests there’s nothing you can really do to address it, because the behaviour is primarily driven by genetic factors, a quite debilitating position in terms of promoting positive teacher-child engagement and motivation to promote learning.

Part of my research has involved challenging this hypothesis. It took years of longitudinal study looking at children with biologically unrelated parents, such as adopted children, and other novel research designs where children and rearing parents are not genetically related. We eventually demonstrated that the magnitude of association linking their mental health to their home and school environments was significant, whether children are genetically related to their rearing parents or not. Home and school environments matter – indeed we know that genetic factors and specific environments work together to affect children’s long-term development, and that promoting positive home and school environments substantially affects children’s long-term outcomes.  All parents/carers, including adoptive parents, step-parents, as well as teachers and other professionals can make a significant difference to children’s life chances.

"Teachers are currently trained to report behavioural problems, but not necessarily the child at the back of the classroom who is unusually quiet, possibly depressed."

Promoting positive mental health demands a multi-agency approach.

Aside from parents and carers, the professional groups who work most with young people to promote positive mental health include teachers, GPs, social workers and other front-line professionals. The training these groups receive in the area of child development and mental health is often minimal. For example, teachers are currently trained to report behavioural problems, but not necessarily the child at the back of the classroom who is unusually quiet, possibly depressed. My own work has examined how we can equip teachers and other front-line professionals better: I have developed a programme in collaboration with colleagues nationally and internationally that introduces trainees to some of the fundamentals of child development and developmental psychology, and shows them how to spot signals that things might not be as they should. Through support from Andrew and Virginia Rudd, we will develop and enhance this innovative programme through the Faculty and the wider University of Cambridge, and national and international partners.

It’s vital that our work connects research to practice.

Research in mental health and education must continue to provide a basis for knowledge-led teaching and professional-practice models, continuing professional development opportunities, and ongoing engagement with the education sector, social care, medical professionals, and other key practitioner groups. I’ll be continuing such work in my role at Cambridge. One area I’m keen to develop is enabling these groups to build an understanding of their respective roles and how they intersect in promoting the best opportunities for young people in the UK (and internationally). The chasms of knowledge between individuals and professional groupings who are directed towards identifying and working with at-risk young people are huge.

The prospective benefits extend far beyond the UK

There is no reason why we cannot develop an evidence-led training programme for teachers, GPs, social workers and others that becomes a template for practitioners internationally. The aim should be to nurture a generation of graduate professionals who can begin to share their knowledge with those who follow. Any such multi-agency approach really starts with undergraduate-level training, driven by the very latest world-leading research.

"The digital environment is blurring the boundaries between the three big environmental factors that influence young people’s mental health."

I’m also running a project about young people’s mental health in a digital world

The digital environment is blurring the boundaries between the three big environmental factors that influence young people’s mental health: family, school, and peers. For example, bullying can extend beyond school and other community or social contexts; children can bring it home with them on their phone or other devices. Similarly, family troubles can continue to affect them during the school day. Our project, the enurture network, is examining how the digital world shapes mental health outcomes for children and young people, and how we can develop effective guidance for parents, teachers and other professionals that takes advantage of its positive features, while limiting potentially damaging effects.

It’s humbling to have been given the opportunity to take on this role.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This is a crucial moment for promoting knowledge and practice relating to mental health, education and the life chances of young people. It is estimated that by 2030, the costs of mental health to the global economy will exceed $16 trillion. This is an inspiring and rare opportunity to develop knowledge that will help to equip and empower both practitioners, and young people themselves, to promote positive mental health. The challenge now is to maximise the real benefits this post can offer, and make sure we deliver.