Is Scouting really the answer to mental wellbeing?
by Ian Bradshaw
As a former Scout (and Cub Scout) with a history of mental health problems my eye was naturally drawn to the headlines declaring that ‘Scouts and Guides provide ‘mental health boost for life’. Yet again I am the exception to the rule!
However, despite my counter-example, the study the headlines are based on does fit with the wider literature that suggests that people who are physically active, volunteer, and have social connections tend to have higher mental wellbeing. These are habits and skills that many people gain in childhood and adolescence and fit in with the ethos of the Scouts and Guides. They are also some of the insights that have informed our projects on social networks and tackling loneliness as ways to help people recovering from mental health problems as adults.
The authors used the National Child Development Study (NCDS), which has been tracking 17,000 people born in a single week in 1958 throughout their lives, to examine whether people who had been a Scout or Guide did have better mental health even taking into account their family background and where they lived. They found that of the almost 10,000 50 year-olds the study had data for the 1 in 4 who had been a Scout or Guide in their youth were 18% less likely to suffer from a mood or anxiety disorder than the rest of the sample. They also had higher mental wellbeing.
The effect was limited to those who had been Scouts or Guides. People who had been members of ‘unstructured’ youth groups or churches did not show a similar effect. Being a Scout or Guide also seemed to level out some of the differences in mental wellbeing that can be attributed to class and family background.
The authors conjecture that the special ingredient of the Scouts and Guides in the 1970s (when the NCDS cohort were teenagers) was a mixture of their focus on outdoors activities and self-directed learning in small groups. The latter may have provided the social skills, confidence and resilience that may have helped ex-Scouts to manage stress and setbacks in later life that an un-structured youth group would not.
Clearly more research is needed to unpick exactly what it was that made the difference. Although part of a national structure, as every former member knows each local Scout and Guide group is unique.
Sadly we can’t assume it was just the magic of putting on a woggle as a child that improved people’s wellbeing.
More importantly we need to learn how those insights can be applied to helping young people in the 21st century, especially those who don’t or can’t access traditional uniformed youth groups.
However, based on this study, and what we know from other research, it does appear that getting involved in a structured youth movement is probably good for the mental wellbeing of young people today and for their future.
Of course not everyone was (un)lucky enough to have spent their early teenage years wearing uniforms, sleeping in leaky tents and trying to cook sausages over an open fire. Even those of us who did can still face problems later in life. Often these can result in people with mental health problems becoming isolated, which further exacerbates their problems. That is why social networks and loneliness, and how they interact with our mental wellbeing as adults, are important themes of our research here at McPin.
The Community Navigators Project we are working with University College London on is piloting an approach to help tackle the isolation and loneliness many people with mental health problems face by providing 1:1 support to help them make links to groups, activities and services in their community.
Our Community Health Networks study looked at how we can help people with serious mental health problems map their social networks and how they support or hinder their recovery. You can see more about it in the video below.
Finally a number of the local wellbeing projects we have evaluated, such as the Mensheds in Kent, are designed to help provide spaces for people with common interests to connect and support each other.
So, at any age being active and having strong social networks is good for your mental wellbeing. For some young people the Scouts, Guides, and other structured youth groups, look like a good way of learning the skills that may help keep them mentally well now and in later life, and many other useful things as well. But they are not a panacea.
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 Dibben C, Playford C, Mitchell R, 2Be(ing) prepared: Guide and Scout participation, childhood social position and mental health at age 50 – a prospective birth cohort study” Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health 2016