In this podcast, we talk to Jessica Armitage, a PhD researcher currently based in the School of Psychological Science at the University of Bristol.
We hear about Jessica’s interest in understanding the factors that enable individuals to overcome experiences and adversity, plus what prompted her interest in this field.
Jessica also discusses her co-authored JCPP Advances paper, ‘Positive wellbeing and resilience following adolescent victimisation: An exploration into protective factors across development’ (doi.org/10.1002/jcv2.12024), including a summary of the paper, insight into the methodology used, and her key findings.
Jessica also explores how she defines ‘good wellbeing’, and elaborates on her paper’s findings that factors that support wellbeing do not necessarily reduce the risk of depression.
Furthermore, Jessica talks about the concept of school competence, providing further insight into her findings from the paper showing that victims of bullying who hold higher perceptions of scholastic competence in childhood have greater wellbeing in adulthood than victims who reported lower scholastic competence in childhood. Jessica also elaborates on what other protective factors proved important moderators of adult wellbeing following peer victimisation in childhood.
Jessica graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in Psychology from the University of Reading. She was awarded an ESRC 1+3 studentship, achieving an MSc with distinction in Psychological Research Methods, and is now undertaking a PhD. Her research focusses on the genetic and environmental influences underlying resilient functioning. She is particularly interested in understanding the factors that enable individuals to overcome experiences of adversity and remain mentally healthy across the life-course. (Bio from The Dynamic Genetics Lab, part of the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol,
[00:00:30.370] – Jo Carlowe: Welcome to a different type of In-conversation podcast from the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, ACAMH, where we will look at the paper ‘Positive wellbeing and resilience following adolescent victimisation: An exploration into protective factors across development’, recently published in JCPP Advances. I’m Jo Carlow, a freelance journalist with a specialism in psychology, and I have Jessica Armitage with me, who is a PhD researcher currently based in the School of Psychological Science at the University of Bristol. Jessica’s research focuses on the genetic and environmental influences underlying resilient functioning.
[00:01:08.900] She is also the first author of the paper we’ll be discussing today. If you’re a fan of our In-Conversation series, please subscribe on iTunes or your preferred streaming platform. Let us know how we did with a rating or review and do share with friends and colleagues. Hi, Jessica, thank you so much for joining me. Can you briefly introduce yourself?
[00:01:26.970] – Jessica Armitage: Hi, Jo, thank you for having me. My name is Jessica Armitage, and as you mentioned I’m a PhD researcher based at the University of Bristol. I have actually recently just submitted my PhD and I’m due to start my new role as a research associate at the Wolfson Centre for Young People’s Mental Health, which will be based at Cardiff University. So I’m very excited to start there and can begin my new chapter in mental health research.
[00:01:51.380] – Jo Carlowe: Brilliant, well done. Jessica, you have a particular interest in understanding the factors that enable individuals to overcome experiences of adversity. What prompted your interest in this field?
[00:02:03.940] – Jessica Armitage: I’ve always been interested in people and what makes us so different? Why do people who’ve gone through quite similar events experience and react to them so differently, and I think it was probably during my undergraduate degree in psychology when I started to learn about genetics and individual differences, that this interest just really grew and I decided that I wanted to investigate it for myself. So I then applied to do my Master’s and my PhD, and it sort of spiralled from there I guess.
[00:02:30.260] – Jo Carlowe: Now, as mentioned in the intro, you have co-authored the paper ‘Positive wellbeing and resilience following adolescent victimisation: An exploration into protective factors across development’, published in JCPP Advances. Can you start with a summary of the paper? What did you look at?
[00:02:47.720] – Jessica Armitage: In this paper we set out to understand the factors that allow an individual who’s been subjected to peer victimisation or bullying in adolescence and our aim was just to understand the factors that allow someone who’s gone through this experience to maintain good mental health in later adulthood. So a key goal for us was to kind of expand the previous research that was very much focused on, sort of, depression among victims to understand how people not only avoid mental illness but allows them to maintain good wellbeing as well, and we looked at 14 protective factors in total, and these were selected and guided based on previous research, and overall we demonstrated that people who perceive themselves to being more capable in their school work and childhood were those who go on to maintain greater wellbeing and resilience following these experiences of peer victimisation.
[00:03:39.010] – Jo Carlowe: As you just mentioned, a major implication of your published research is the demonstration that resilience is not just avoiding depression, but maintaining good wellbeing. Can you define good wellbeing? What does it comprise?
[00:03:53.750] – Jessica Armitage: Absolutely, and this sort of theme of resilience is something that runs throughout most of my research, and I think it’s really important that people are aware that wellbeing isn’t just avoiding a mental health problem, but it’s about fostering happiness and satisfaction and meaning in life. Someone could be without a mental health problem, but they could still be unhappy or unsatisfied. So I think it’s really important that we don’t just understand predictors of depression, but also this other end of the scale, which is wellbeing and flourishing.
[00:04:24.550] – Jo Carlowe: Jessica, what methodology did you use for the research?
[00:04:27.930] – Jessica Armitage: So I used a prospective longitudinal cohort called ALSPAC which stands for the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, and essentially this is just a large cohort of nearly 15,000 participants that signed up to the study about 30 years ago and what ALSPAC do is they collect data annually using a variety of methods. So interviews and questionnaires and what this allows us to do is follow the same group of individuals to explore how early events in their lives kind of unfold to predict those outcomes, and this is exactly what we did.
[00:05:05.080] We used this data specifically at peer victimisation at age 13, to explore how it, sort of, predicts and is associated with mental health sort of ten years on at age 23, and then to do this we use what’s called an interactive regression model, which essentially allowed us to test whether various protective factors moderate the relationship between peer victimisation and later mental health.
[00:05:31.190] – Jo Carlowe: What were the key findings from the paper?
[00:05:33.390] – Jessica Armitage: The key finding was that there are protective factors that can moderate the risk of poor wellbeing in adulthood after victimisation, and in particular, we found that it’s perceptions of school competence in childhood. So how well children view their abilities in school. So I guess the takeaway message from this is that interventions aimed at increasing these perceptions of school competence could be an effective means of supporting more positive wellbeing following experiences of bullying. We did also note some protective effects of friendships in late adolescence, but these positive benefits tended to only be for people that were exposed to less frequent victimisation.
[00:06:13.630] – Jo Carlowe: One thing that came out of the findings was that factors that support wellbeing do not necessarily reduce the risk of depression. I suppose I was surprised by that. Can you elaborate on this finding? Why is that so?
[00:06:27.110] – Jessica Armitage: I was surprised as well with this finding, but I think it really does kind of resonate with this idea that resilience isn’t just avoiding depression and depression is predicted by factors that might be different to wellbeing. So it’s not overly clear why school competence moderated wellbeing, but not depression. It’s possible that having higher perceptions of school competence might actually increase someone’s subsequent academic attainment, which we know itself is related to higher wellbeing, but it’s possible that people who go on to achieve academically also experience heightened anxiety and pressure to succeed, and that might be why we don’t see this moderating effect on depression but this is a finding that we will need to investigate further.
[00:07:16.250] – Jo Carlowe: Let’s look in more detail then at the concept of school competence. Your findings show that victims of bullying who hold higher perceptions of scholastic competence in childhood have greater wellbeing in adulthood than victims who reported lower scholastic competence in childhood. How do you explain the protective effect of scholastic competence as against, say, athletic competence or other competencies?
[00:07:42.050] – Jessica Armitage: We focused in particular on scholastic competence based on some of the previous research findings and then we also looked at global self-worth. So I mentioned it might be driven through this academic route. It might be that scholastic competence increases someone’s confidence and their ability then to go on and successfully do well in school, but it could also be that it’s broader than that. That it is more related to self-esteem. I think that if that is the case, that it’s driven by self-esteem, that it might be that doing well, as you say in athletic competence might have a similar impact in terms of it increasing someone’s confidence and their general ability to handle events.
[00:08:22.880] I think if it’s more of the academic route, then the impact for something like athletic competence might be less clear, but we know that exercise and maintaining a good BMI is predictive of positive wellbeing at the population level. So it could be that someone exposed to bullying also derives the same benefits as they would from doing well in school, but again this is something that we will have to investigate further.
[00:08:47.060] – Jo Carlowe: Can I just check, is it the perception of competence that’s protective, as opposed to, say, the measurable competence in terms of how well you do in tests or something?
[00:08:56.900] – Jessica Armitage: Yeah, it’s all about the perceptions of school competence and not actually how well people do in school. We did look at academic ability, but unfortunately we only had data on school subjects. We didn’t actually have their GCSE grades or their test scores, so to speak. So again, that’s another finding that we’d really like to explore further. Is it the perception of doing well, or is it actually doing well because we know they are correlated, but they are quite different.
[00:09:26.530] – Jo Carlowe: That’s really interesting. Jessica, what other protective factors proved important moderators of adult wellbeing following peer victimisation in childhood?
[00:09:35.950] – Jessica Armitage: The scholastic competence was actually the only one to really moderate the adult mental health and have what we call this interactive effect, but I mentioned earlier that we did see this protective effect of friendships, so people who felt more supported by their friends in late adolescence also had higher wellbeing than people that felt less supported, but this effect was only found for people that were exposed to what we call occasional victimisation, rather than frequent victimisation. So it seems that friends might be protective, but only to some extent, and they’re less protective to these more severe and really frequent experiences.
[00:10:15.740] – Jo Carlowe: Are there any other key findings that you’d like to highlight from the paper?
[00:10:19.590] – Jessica Armitage: I think one thing that I would like to highlight, and it took some of the reviewers by surprise. We obviously looked at 14 protective factors, as I mentioned, and the one that we found to have these clear moderating effects on mental health was scholastic competence, which was assessed in childhood, which I find really interesting because we assess protective factors from age eight right up until nearly 18 years old and I think it’s really interesting that the protective factors that were most efficient were those that were in place prior to the victimisation experience. So scholastic competence is assessed at age eight, and the peer victimisation occurred at 13 years, which I think kind of suggests that these people that we say are more resilient and more able to exercise better mental health were those that had perhaps had time to develop and build resilience prior to the event.
[00:11:13.260] So whether it reduced the stress that was experienced at the time of the victimisation or it gave individuals the confidence to handle the events, I don’t know, but I think it’s interesting that it’s more about what you have prior to victimisation rather than something that’s acquired after it.
[00:11:31.260] – Jo Carlowe: Yeah, that’s really interesting. It probably has some implications for interventions. What are the implications of your findings for professionals working with young people and their families?
[00:11:42.530] – Jessica Armitage: I’d say the implications are firstly ensuring that young people really do maintain these positive perceptions of their school ability. So while the ultimate goal with anyone working with young people is to try and alleviate bullying and reduce victimisation in schools, it’s widely accepted that we’re never going to eradicate victimisation completely. So we’re always going to need efforts to be put into place to support victims, and I think teachers could play a really important role here. They’re the ones that provide feedback to students regarding their school work, and therefore they could be a really appropriate target to facilitate changes in students’ perceptions of their ability.
[00:12:23.480] And I think in schools we can deliver these school-based interventions that are offered to multiple students rather than on an individual basis. It’s going to be a lot more efficient but I think one thing to take away from this study in some of my other research is just this idea that people who are victimised can still go on to exercise resilience. Although the risk for mental health is higher. There are factors in place that can moderate that risk. I think people will find comfort from the fact that you can go through these adverse experiences but sort of come out the other end and foster resilience. I think that’s really important.
[00:12:58.680] – Jo Carlowe: Jessica, are you planning some follow up research that you can reveal to us?
[00:13:02.680] – Jessica Armitage: I am, yes. I’m always planning new research. I think for me, the findings are really interested in terms of, as we mentioned, is it the perceptions of school competence or is it actually doing well in school that is really important for wellbeing. So I’m currently in the process of using more causal methods. There’s a technique called Mendelian randomisation, which allows us to test relationships for causality. So I’m definitely going to explore the link between academia and wellbeing a bit more because it is so unclear in the literature at the moment. Some people have found positive outcomes of doing well in school, where others have found negative. Really important to investigate that further and just clarify the causal relationships there.
[00:13:46.380] – Jo Carlowe: Is there anything else in the pipeline for you that you’d like to mention?
[00:13:50.450] – Jessica Armitage: I mentioned that I start my new role as a research associate at the Wolfson Centre, and I’m really excited for the research that will hopefully come out in the next couple of years. The centre focuses a lot on how mental health problems can be prevented and resilience promoted, and one of their ultimate aims is to kind of break down the barriers between research, policy and practice, so that we’re really translating research and using evidence based knowledge to actually put that into practice and develop interventions for young people.
[00:14:21.900] So I’m really looking forward to becoming a part of that and making a good contribution hopefully in the next couple of years.
[00:14:29.590] – Jo Carlowe: Talking about policy. Is there any particular message to policy makers from the research that we’ve discussed today?
[00:14:37.020] – Jessica Armitage: I mean, there definitely needs to be more support for wellbeing, in addition to depression and I think the policy makers have really in the last couple of years especially focusing on resilience, which has been fantastic. You know, moving away from this idea of dealing with depression and instead trying to prevent depression. I think it’s been great and I think just pursuing that resilience take on things is definitely very important.
[00:15:01.930] – Jo Carlowe: Finally, Jessica, what’s your takeaway message for those listening to our conversation?
[00:15:06.730] – Jessica Armitage: My takeaway message is identifying protective factors early on could be the key to preventing the development of negative mental health outcomes for people exposed to bullying, but I guess also this idea that wellbeing is just as important as depression and mental ill health, and that we do need to both dimensions of the spectrum when we’re not only doing our research, but when we’re assessing people for their overall functioning is really important. That’s my takeaway message.
[00:15:36.830] – Jo Carlowe: Brilliant. Jessica, thank you so much. For more details on Jessica Armitage, please visit the ACAMH website, www.acamh.org and Twitter at @acamh. Spelt A-C-A-M-H and don’t forget to follow us on iTunes or your preferred streaming platform and let us know if you enjoyed the podcast with a rating or review and do share with friends and colleagues.