'Scouts and guides provide 'mental health boost for life',' BBC News reports. A study of adults with a scouting or guiding background found they were less likely to be anxious or depressed in later life.
But the difference in average mental health scores was quite small (2.2 points on a 1 to 100 scale). About 21% of people who'd been Scouts or Guides had scores that suggested a mood or anxiety disorder, compared to 25% of those with no history of involvement in Scouts or Guides.
The researchers also found the expected poorer mental health associated with coming from a lower social class did not seem to apply to children who'd been Scouts or Guides.
This may suggest that the inclusivity of both charity organisations, which welcome children from all backgrounds, may play a positive role in adulthood.
This type of research may be complicated by other factors. The researchers tried to take account of other factors, such as whether people took part in other clubs, but it is hard to be sure that other factors don't partly explain the findings.
While the overall results may appear modest, when it comes to mental health, every little helps.
Interestingly, the 'Scouting principles' described by founder Robert Baden-Powell in the first decade of the 20th Century seem to chime with many of the steps that experts now think can lead to improved mental wellbeing.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
The UK media was enthusiastic about the possibility that Scouts and Guides were protected against poor mental health in middle age, and reporting was broadly accurate.
Many papers included quotes from individuals involved with the Scouting and Guiding movements, such as 18 year old Girlguiding member Emma Brodey, who said 'Girlguiding is … for the girl. It offers a safe space where they can be themselves, build their confidence and escape from the ever-increasing pressures in their lives. Women tell us every week that their accomplishments and memories through guiding have lasted throughout their lives'.
What kind of research was this?
This was a cohort study, intended to find out whether Scout or Guide participation in childhood was linked to adult mental health, and how this interacted with social class. Cohort studies are good ways to show links between factors, but it's much harder to show that one factor causes another.
What did the research involve?
Researchers used information from the UK's National Child Development Study, set up to study people born in one week in 1958.
A group of 9,790 people from this study were interviewed about their mental health in 2008, at age 50.
Researchers used information about the people from childhood onwards to adjust their figures for confounding factors, then looked to see whether they had better mental health if they'd been Scouts or Guides, and how this was affected by social class.
Only 4,020 people had complete records, so the researchers used statistical techniques to fill in the gaps. Some people were then excluded from the study if there was too little information about them. The researchers included 9,603 people in total.
Social class was assessed by their father's status, and educational aspiration by whether their parents wanted them to stay at school past the minimum leaving age of the time.
The research also looked at family history of mental health problems, and how often they played indoor or outdoor games or sports.
To try to take account of possible confounding factors, researchers looked at whether people took part in other clubs, voluntary groups or religious groups, and whether that was linked to their mental health.
They also looked at whether geographical areas with higher or lower Scout and Guide participation had differing mental health status.
They also considered if the amount of time people attended Scouts and Guides was linked to mental health (a so-called 'dose response' where the effect size is in line with the amount of attendance – 'the more the better').
What were the basic results?
The average mental health score (from a scale 0 to 100, where higher is better) was 74.8.
Researchers found 28% of the group had been Scouts or Guides, and for them:
- average mental health score was 2.28 points higher
- the chance of having a score of 65 or less, which the researchers used as a mark of having anxiety or mood disorder, was 18% lower, at 21 in 100 compared to 25 in 100 for people who weren't scouts or guides (odds ratio 0.82, 95% confidence interval 0.74 to 0.92)
- the effect of social class, in which people with lower social class had poorer mental health aged 50, was less pronounced. People from lower social classes who'd been Scouts or Guides had as good or better mental health than those from higher social classes who hadn't been Scouts or Guides
Current membership of churches or voluntary organisations did not have any effect on mental health. However, surprisingly the researchers found that previous membership of a voluntary organisation was linked to a 27% increased chance of anxiety or mood disorder. Possible reasons for this were not explored.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers say their research 'suggests that scout-guide attendance may be protective, instituting a resilience to stressful life events that may lead to mental ill health.' They say that the relationship 'does not appear to be explained by potential confounding factors'.
They conclude: 'encouraging interventions in youth that are low cost and available worldwide through existing institutional structures may be an important and cost-effective policy response' to poor mental health in later life.
The theory that being in the Scouts or Guides could set you up for good mental health for life is very attractive.
Scout and Guide membership is designed to help young people learn life skills, take part in communal activities and enjoy the outdoors, all of which are likely to help with better mental health.
However, there are a few issues to be aware of:
- Observational studies can't prove beyond doubt that one factor causes another, even when the researchers try to account for alternative explanations for their findings.
- The results threw up one odd finding – that past participation in voluntary groups greatly raised the risk of poor mental health, by much more than participation in Scouts or Guides reduced it. This surprising result casts doubt on the reliability of the other findings.
- More than half of the participants in the study had missing data that had to be added in by researchers, making assumptions about the participants. This could introduce errors.
- The researchers didn't find any evidence of a dose response – that the more people attended Scouts or Guides, the better their mental health.
However, whether or not these results are completely reliable, Scouts and Guides are low-cost, volunteer-run charity organisations which may offer young people support and life skills that could help them through life. To paraphrase the Scouting motto, it's always better to be prepared.
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