Professor Cathy Creswell in central Oxford

Philanthropy Report 2020/21

Helping families cope during the COVID-19 crisis


Support from the Westminster Foundation is enabling critical research into the impact of the pandemic on parents, children and young people’s mental health.

Alarm bells began ringing for Cathy Creswell, Professor of Developmental Clinical Psychology, in early March 2020. ‘It suddenly became clear that there were going to be huge restrictions on children and families’ lives,’ she reflects. ‘And because we know about the association between social interactions, play, being outside, physical activity, and children and young people’s mental health, we felt it was really critical to keep a close eye on what was going on.’

As the UK entered its first lockdown, Professor Creswell and her colleague in the Department of Experimental Psychology, Dr Polly Waite, launched Co-SPACE: a study aimed at understanding how families are coping, as well as what parents and carers can do to support their children’s mental health. Through a monthly survey and interviews with participants, the team has been able to build a clear picture of how children, young people and their families have been getting on.

‘I think the main takeaway message is that there’s been a huge variety in people’s experiences,’ says Professor Creswell. ‘What we’ve been able to see is that many children, around 50–60%, have been really fine all the way through. Then there is a small group who struggled at the beginning and carried on struggling throughout, others for whom life was maybe a bit tricky at the start and then got a bit easier, and some for whom things just got harder.’

Armed with data from over 8,000 participants, the Co-SPACE team has been able to see whether any particular factors are associated with these differing trajectories. It has become clear that age is one, with primary school children among the Co-SPACE sample undergoing greater changes to their mental health than those at secondary school.

Children from low-income families and those with special educational needs have also been more vulnerable to elevated mental health symptoms. ‘Children from these groups have definitely had a harder time,’ notes Dr Waite, ‘and that’s essentially because they’re experiencing adversity to such a greater level constantly throughout the pandemic.’

‘There’s a lot of different work taking place around what children and young people will need in the future, and our data is definitely contributing to some of that planning’

Professor Cathy Creswell

Overlaid on these findings are further pronounced patterns. Emotional and behavioural difficulties increased during periods of the greatest restriction, with June 2020 and February 2021 singled out as particularly difficult months. The study has also revealed the same pattern in parental depression and stress.

To ensure that the study’s findings have a positive, real-world impact, the team has worked closely with practitioners and policymakers to help them consider how best to respond to the mental health needs of children and young people during the pandemic. Co-SPACE findings have also been disseminated to parents and carers, widely reported in the media, and used extensively by the voluntary and community sector.

‘It’s been really important that we’ve had data that has enabled us to contribute to the national conversation about children and young people, and how they have been affected,’ says Professor Creswell.

The study’s findings have also been used to instigate and inform further academic research. After seeing an increase in emotional symptoms among primary-aged children, Professor Creswell, Dr Waite and colleagues at King’s College London set up SPARKLE: a randomised control trial evaluating the effectiveness of an app-based parenting intervention in helping Co-SPACE parents manage their children’s behavioural problems.

Co-SPACE data has also underpinned the development of Professor Creswell’s Co-CAT study, which provides and evaluates an online parent-led therapy programme for children with anxiety problems.

More than 1,000 families have received online support across both studies, including through child and adolescent mental health services. ‘Co-CAT and SPARKLE are very large, ambitious trials that we felt were really important to do to respond to the current situation,’ explains Professor Creswell. ‘But I think the implication is that, if successful, those are interventions that we would be able to continue to use beyond the pandemic context.’

Boy and man at study
  It became clear that the restrictions would have a big impact on children and young people. Photo: iStock

Professor Creswell sees the Westminster Foundation’s support for Co-SPACE as a critical factor in enabling the study’s success, and in laying the groundwork for these additional projects. ‘They’ve very much come about because we were able to get that initial support from the foundation,’ she explains.

That support meant that a postdoctoral researcher could be recruited to the Co-SPACE team early on, something that enabled them to become ‘much more responsive to the data, and responsive to the questions that policymakers want answers to.’ It has also opened up opportunities for Professor Creswell and Dr Waite to work with international partners who have been running parallel studies during the pandemic, including in Iran, Australia, Denmark and the United States.

For Professor Creswell, the insight they’ve gained through Co-SPACE has been invaluable, and not only in the context of the current crisis. ‘What we’ve got from our data is a better understanding of who’s been particularly hard hit, and it means the next time around, we would be in a position to target support to make sure those most in need really get what they need.’

Dr Waite agrees and says that the challenge now is to dig deep into the mountain of data they’ve gathered to see what further conclusions can be drawn. ‘There are so many interesting questions still to understand, like what are the resilience factors? What happened over the course of the last year?’ she says. ‘We’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg.’

Co-SPACE was funded by the Westminster Foundation and the UK Research and Innovation Council. The Westminster Foundation has also provided generous support for Professor Creswell’s Co-RAY project, which is enabling young people to develop evidence-based mental health resources during the pandemic.


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