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Children with psychological distress are more likely to become unemployed

Author: Mark Egan
Institution: Stirling University
Type of case study: Research

About the research

Evidence suggests that poor mental health in childhood has a pronounced and pervasive influence on people’s chances of socioeconomic success as adults. Understanding how childhood mental health shapes adult economic outcomes is a key question which affects health, educational and employment policies. This research, carried out by Egan, Daly and Delaney of The Stirling Behavioural Science Centre investigated whether there was an association between childhood psychological distress and unemployment in the formative early stages of working life. 

To investigate the link between childhood psychological distress and youth unemployment, the research team used data from two nationally-representative British prospective cohort studies: the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England and the National Child Development Study. Both datasets contain detailed background data on the cohort members, including their socioeconomic background, household characteristics, and childhood and early employment histories.

The first study used the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England and looked at the level of psychological distress at the age of fourteen, as measured via self-report, using the General Health Questionnaire and the likelihood that the young person would be unemployed between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one The results showed that those who were classified as highly distressed had unemployment rates two percentage points higher than their low distress peers.

In the second study, the research team used the National Child Development Study to test the robustness of the relationship between teacher-rated childhood distress at ages seven and eleven and greater difficulty entering the job market. This second study included control variable for the participants’ childhood cognitive ability, temperament and early childhood environment. The researchers also tested whether childhood distress was associated with particularly high levels of unemployment after the onset of the UK recession in the 1980’s. The results showed that children classified as highly distressed were three percentage points more likely to be unemployed than the least distressed children. Taken together, these two studies showed that children with high distress were 40% more likely to become unemployed. Using the National Child Development Study data the research team also found that children with high distress were 50% more likely to become unemployed after the onset of the 1980 recession in the UK.   

This is the first study to conclusively demonstrate that highly distressed children experience youth unemployment levels higher than their less distressed peers. This association was not markedly affected by adjustment for adult distress, suggesting that childhood distress may set in motion a broad set of social, educational and health effects that act to influence later employment. 


The main independent variables were a self-reported measure of psychological distress as measured by the General Health Questionnaire at age 14 (from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England) and teacher-rated measures of distress at age 7 and 11 (from the National Child Development Study). The outcome variables were monthly unemployment from age 16-20 (from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England) and age 16-23 (from the National Child Development Study). Probit and negative binomial models were used with standard errors clustered by ID for longitudinal regressions.

Further work on this issue

The research team suggest that future research should be carried out to examine whether the central finding of childhood distress robustly predicting unemployment replicates in other datasets and whether the distressed are more likely to become unemployed during recessions. If this is the case, this suggests that there could be economic benefits to improving mental health services early in life. 

This research was funded by the ESRC, Skills Development Scotland and the European Commission Marie Curie Initiative.


Egan, M., Daly, M., Delaney, L. (2015) ‘Childhood psychological distress and youth unemployment: Evidence from two British cohort studies’, Social Science & Medicine, 124, pp. 11-17. DOI:10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.11.023.