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Most young peoples well-being falls sharply in first years of secondary school, UK study finds

Most young people in the UK experience a sharp decline in their well-being during their first years at secondary school, regardless of their circumstances or background, new research shows.

Academics from the Universities of Cambridge and Manchester analysed the well-being and self-esteem of more than 11,000 young people from across the UK, using data collected when they were 11, and again when they were 14. The adolescents’ overall ‘subjective well-being’ — their satisfaction with different aspects of life (such as friends, school and family) — dropped significantly during the intervening years.

It is widely accepted that young people’s well-being and mental health are influenced by factors such as economic circumstances and family life. The research shows that notwithstanding this, well-being tends to fall steeply and across the board during early adolescence.

That decline is probably linked to the transition to secondary school at age 11. The study identified that the particular aspects of well-being which changed in early adolescence were typically related to school and peer relationships, suggesting a close connection with shifts in these young people’s academic and social lives.

In addition, students with higher self-esteem at age 11 experienced a less significant drop in well-being at age 14. This indicates that structured efforts to strengthen adolescents’ self-esteem, particularly during the first years of secondary school, could mitigate the likely downturn in well-being and life satisfaction.

Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, who led the study said: “Even though this was a large, diverse group of adolescents, we saw a consistent fall in well-being. One of the most striking aspects was the clear association with changes at school. It suggests we urgently need to do more to support students’ well-being at secondary schools across the UK.”

Ros McLellan, Associate Professor at the University of Cambridge, specialist in student well-being, and co-author, said: “The link between self-esteem and well-being seems especially important. Supporting students’ capacity to feel positive about themselves during early adolescence is not a fix-all solution, but it could be highly beneficial, given that we know their well-being is vulnerable.”

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