Today, with colleagues from the Longitudinal Studies Centre Scotland at Edinburgh University, we have published a study
which found that being in the Guides or Scouts as a child seems to protect your mental health long into adulthood. Those who were in the Guides or Scouts were about 18% less likely to have a mood or anxiety disorder at age 50, than those who were not. This protective link seems especially strong for children who grew up in less advantaged households, so much so that the usual ‘gap’ in mental health between those from richer and poorer backgrounds does not exist among those who were Scouts or Guides.
How did we do this work? We used one of the UK’s best resources for social and health research, the National Child Development Study (NCDS). This amazing study has followed a group of people born in the UK in a single week in 1958, throughout their lives. They are periodically interviewed, and this gives us a picture of how a participant’s life and health develops over time.
Our measure of mental health came from the well-established ‘SF-36’ questionnaire, which includes questions about the amount of time during the past 4 weeks someone has (1) been a very nervous person; (2) felt calm and cheerful; (3) felt downhearted and low; (4) been a happy person; and (5) felt so down in the dumps that nothing could cheer them up. The responses are totalled to give a score (from 0-100) which represents overall mental health. Where that score exceeds a particular threshold, it’s a good indication that this person has a mood or anxiety disorder.
The brilliant thing about NCDS is that it captures so much information about the life circumstances of the participants; we know a lot about the kind of family and home the child grew up in, including their parents’ jobs, health, attitudes to education and aspirations for their child’s future. Such details are important in helping us to be as sure as we can be that our results represent a real relationship. We were able to take account of the family background of the participants, and impacts this may have had on their health in later life. We also knew whether our respondents did other kinds of activities as children, such as attend Church groups or voluntary groups. These kinds of activities made good comparisons for being in Scouts or Guides and we found that they did not have the same link to better mental health.
We had 9,603 people in our study. About a quarter of them had been a Scout or Guide. The average score on the mental health measure was 74.8, but for the former Scouts or Guides it was 2.2 points better. The gap in mental health score at age 50 between those from the most and least advantaged backgrounds was about 3 points among those who were not former Scouts or Guides. There was no gap among those who were former Scouts and Guides.
The chances of having a mood or anxiety disorder were about 18% lower among former Scouts or Guides. To put that into context, if you had 1000 people who had not been a Scout or Guide, you’d expect 250 of them to have mood or anxiety problems. If you had 1000 people who had been Scouts or Guides, you would expect just 210 of them to have those problems.
How do we explain these results? Perhaps being a Scout or Guide instils a resilience to stresses later in life that may otherwise lead to poor mental health, and/or perhaps the skills acquired increase your chances of getting to positions as an adult that are associated with better mental health. There is growing evidence that soft or ‘character skills’ (for example conscientiousness, perseverance and curiosity) are as important as intelligence in allowing someone to achieve positive positions in life. We know that many of the things being a Scout or Guide enable you to do or learn are useful for protecting mental health: taking exercise, eating well, enjoying the outdoors, having good social skills, having fun and making a contribution. We also know that being a Scout or Guide helps people to encounter new or challenging situations and cope well, with the help of others.
Finally, we think these results are important. Mental health problems in middle age are increasingly common, and cost individuals and society a great deal in both financial and emotional terms. The health gaps between richer and poorer people remain a huge problem. Scouts, Guides and other similar activities are low cost and available worldwide. Perhaps they could contribute to an effective policy response to these challenges. Perhaps they are equigenic.