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external superivsors

Stavros Petrou, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences
Thomas Fanshawe, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences
Cathy Creswell Department of experimental Psychology


Poor mental health experienced in childhood and adolescence is common and affects human capital accumulation, with negative consequences for educational achievements and health and labour market engagement in adulthood. Mental ill-health in children/adolescents often manifests as behavioural and conduct problems, as well as emotional problems such as anxiety or depression. Maternal mental health is widely recognised as one of the key determinants of child mental health, with some evidence suggesting that children of mothers with mental illness are more likely to perform poorly at school. However, empirical evidence on the impact that paternal mental health may have on child/adolescent mental health, cognitive development and education is still limited. A deeper understanding of how poor maternal and paternal mental health may individually and/or jointly play a significant role in shaping child/adolescent mental health, cognitive development and educational attainments, is important for developing evidence-based policies aimed at improving children’s lifetime outcomes. Such policies may in fact need to focus on families rather than only on individuals, so as to also prevent intergenerational transmission of poor mental health and associated socio-economic disadvantage over the life course. 

The project

This DPhil aims to systematically investigate the relationship between parental (maternal and paternal) psychological distress and child/adolescent (i) mental health (i.e. socio-emotional and conduct disorders); (ii) cognitive outcomes; and (iii) educational achievements in the UK, from early childhood to age 17. Implications for designing, implementing and evaluating policies to improve child’s lifelong outcomes will then be drawn from the evidence-base produced by the project. It is anticipated that the project will mainly use data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) ( and linked datasets.  MCS includes the key variables necessary for the project: maternal and paternal distress (Kessler 6-item Psychological Distress Scale - K6); a  “child-centric” 

measure of children’s mental ill-health (the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, ages 3-17 years); cognitive outcomes collected since age 3; pupil-level linked education data from the National Pupil Database (school-level data are also available).

Specific objectives, which can be adapted by prospective candidates according to their research interests, may include (not exhaustive):

-    to study the extent to which maternal and paternal distress and their changes over time may be associated with and have differential impacts on specific child/adolescent mental health, cognitive and educational outcomes at various ages (cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis);

-    to identify and investigate (depending on the candidate’s specific interests) some of the key factors that may mediate the identified relationships;

-    to explore the challenges and consequences of relying on proxy-respondents when assessing child’s outcomes (parent-, interviewer-, teacher-reported measures). 

Further reading:

  • Cunha F, Heckman JJ, Lochner L, Masterov, D. 2006. Interpreting the evidence on life cycle skill formation. Chap. 12, pages 697{812 of: Hanushek, E.A., & Welch, F. (eds), Handbook of the Economics of Education, vol. 1. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
  • Del Bono E, Kinsler J, Pavan R. (2019) Skill Formation and the Trouble with Child Non-Cognitive Skill Measures. ISER Economics Working Papers series.
  • Goodman, R., Ford, T., Simmons, H., Gatward, R., & Meltzer, H. (2000). Using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) to screen for child psychiatric disorders in a community sample. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 177(6), 534-9
  • Kessler, R. C., Andrews, G., Colpe, L. J., Hiripi, E., Mroczek, D. K., Normand, S.-L. T., et al. (2002). Short screening scales to monitor population prevalences and trends in nonspecific psychological distress. Psychological Medicine, 32(06), 959–976.
  • Noonan, K. Burns, R., Violato, M. (2018). Family income, maternal psychological distress and child socio-emotional behaviour: Longitudinal findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. SSM - Population Health 4 (2018) 280–290
  • Violato, M., Petrou, S., Gray, R., Redshaw, M. (2011). Family income and child cognitive and behavioural development in the United Kingdom: does money matter? Health Economics 20(10), 1201–1225.
  • Flouri E, Sarmadi , Francesconi M. (2019). Paternal Psychological Distress and Child Problem Behavior From Early Childhood to Middle Adolescence. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2019 Apr;58(4):453-458. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2018.06.041. Epub 2019 Feb 2.


The studentship will involve generic research skills such as reviewing the literature, identifying suitable theoretical frameworks, developing hypotheses, building empirical models, analysing quantitative data, interpreting and writing up results.  The candidate will gain in-depth knowledge of child mental health and cognitive development, their main determinants and the importance of producing robust evidence-base for informing policy to improve child outcomes over the life course. It is anticipated that analytic methods will include: cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses of the MCS datasets using appropriate statistics and econometrics techniques; and principal component analysis. We anticipate that the successful candidate will have some previous training in economics/health economics and some econometrics and/or statistical experience, and they will receive further support and training in methods as required.


Fieldwork, secondment or industry placements are not required for this study.  Training in specific methods and transferable skills will be provided, as needed.  The project will be based at the Health Economics Research Centre, Nuffield Department of Population Health, with supervision provided by experienced members of staff (health economists, statistician, and clinician with expertise in child and adolescent mental health) and will benefit from the wider support of the research community in NDPH and other relevant Departments across the University of Oxford. The candidate will have the opportunity to present their work at national and/or international conferences, as appropriate to the topic.

Prospective candidate

The successful candidate will have a strong interest in the area of child/young people development and mental health and evidence-based policy, and a strong first degree in economics or one of its cognate disciplines. They will also have (or be about to complete) a master’s degree in health economics or a specialization within economics, or a closely related quantitative subject, and very good quantitative and data analysis skills. Good interpersonal and communication skills and the ability to work successfully in a multidisciplinary environment are also essential.