Gordon Harold is Andrew and Virginia Rudd Professor of Child and Adolescent Mental Health with the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.
Gordon’s research story
Gordon Harold is a man on a mission – a mission to improve children’s mental health and their life chances. Focusing on what helps children’s development rather than on what hinders it, he’s taking his research findings to parents, children, professionals and policy-makers.
‘Talk to anyone working in the area of child health and welfare today,’ says Gordon, ‘and they’ll outline the poor state of mental health a very large number of children around the world find themselves in, particularly in the UK.’
The figures are stark. According to the World Health Organization, depression will be the second leading cause of time lost to illness by 2020.
Depression in childhood as an index of adult mental ill health is hugely important. And good child mental health is known to be the biggest predictor of academic success and employment. So how is Gordon improving the outlook for children?
‘The big challenge,’ says Gordon, ‘is to link the study of mental health with factors that explain why some children experience poor mental health while other children thrive. We know family influences play a huge role in explaining the differences.’
But until now most studies in this area have involved parents and children who are biologically related. How then do we know that the behaviours children exhibit aren’t simply explained by genetics and family history?
What Gordon has set out to discover is what happens when children aren’t genetically related to one or both of their parents. He works with a range of families – from those who have adopted children, and those in which children have been born though assisted reproductive techniques such as IVF, to families where, through divorce or separation, children aren’t living with both their biological parents.
My work is about refusing to bow to the idea that these mental health issues are inevitable and unaddressable.” Gordon Harold
Andrew and Virginia Rudd Professor of Child and Adolescent Mental Health
His research provides robust evidence that the quality and style of family relationships we experience as children clearly affect our mental health not only in our early years but as adults. Children aren’t just affected by their genes; they’re very directly affected by the family relationships they experience – specifically good parenting and healthy relationships between parents, married or not, living together or not, genetically related or not.
Tirelessly lobbied by Gordon, policy-makers are now waking up to the need to invest in the prevention of poor mental health and its underlying causes as much as in intervention when things go wrong.
Through careful investment in support to help family relationships early on – just as people are about to become parents, or at other critical points such as a child’s transition to primary school – it’s possible to prevent the problems arising in the first place.
And it’s not just policy Gordon is intent on changing. ‘I want the evidence in the hands of those at the coalface, picking up the first signs of issues with a child’s mental health. It’s about educating front-line practitioners such as GPs, teachers, social workers and family lawyers.’
Sussex has recently launched a unique programme to train these professionals. Research-led knowledge is provided not only to support parents more effectively but also to educate the next generation of professionals working with vulnerable children and families.
But it was after a recent talk that Gordon gave to adoptive parents that he realised the profound effect his research is having on the lives of individual families.
One of the parents at the event spoke about the talk she’d heard to her adopted teenage son, who had experienced multiple complex problems. Rather than conclude that these problems could only be explained by genes (as had been suggested to her early in her son’s life), she realised that her parenting and that of the child’s adoptive father really did matter.
The boy’s mother told Gordon she’d always believed her son’s behaviour was the result of ‘risky’ genes and family history, so she’d stepped back and taken a passive approach to parenting. Now she understood how much of a difference she could really make.
‘If the research connects at that personal level,’ says Gordon, ‘it’s all worthwhile. I want to promote confidence in adults to parent positively. My work is about refusing to bow to the idea that these mental health issues are inevitable and unaddressable.’
For Gordon, the support – both financial and personal – of donors like Andrew and Virginia Rudd has made his work possible. Combined with Sussex’s approach to its researchers, he’s been given the opportunity not only to do the research itself but to take the evidence out to those who need to hear it.
‘It’s vital for me to keep the momentum going, to keep up the pressure for change. Sussex doesn’t just break the mould in enabling research to improve the lives of everyday people, it makes the mould!’