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Barry Coughlan

20 February 2024, 4:01 UTC Share

Improving outcomes for children who have experienced adversity through including their voices in policy engagement

Barry Coughlan, University of Cambridge, explores how working with their policy partner, the National Children’s Bureau, helped ensure that policy and practice messages were informed by those with lived experience when researching outcomes for children who have experienced adversity.

Our research aims to understand and improve outcomes for children and young people who have experienced adversity. Facilitated by close links with the National Children’s Bureau, a leading children’s charity in the UK, our research examines issues that have been identified as priorities by those with lived experience, including the role of childhood adversity in contributing to severe mental illness and suicidal distress.

Support from CAPE has been critical in creating a two-way knowledge exchange with policy-makers and sector colleagues while ensuring that the research was shaped by those with lived experience. This support from CAPE was not only vital in helping our research to shape national policy and practice, but also paved the way for future engagement work. In this blog we will discuss our reflections on co-production and engaging with policy audiences.

“The National Children’s Bureau’s guidance was crucial in helping us combine research evidence with the perspectives of those with lived experience to produce an effective and sensitive account of the policy-relevant findings.”

Co-production with experts-by-experience

A driving principle of our research group is that people should be involved in shaping research, policies, and practice relevant to their lives. Traditionally, the perspectives of children and families who have experienced adversity have tended to be side-lined in research. Yet without opportunities to engage these perspectives research, policy and practice can become cut loose from the priorities of those with lived experience.

Facilitated by the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) and supported by the CAPE award, we conducted a number of engagement events with experts-by-experience to better understand their perspectives on our work on the contribution of adversity to mental health. Given the nature of the topic, careful groundwork was required before conducting these events. NCB guided us through this process, helping us to develop materials that were both sensitive and accessible.

In these engagement groups, young people spoke movingly about their experiences of mental health assessments. They pointed out that various factors, including trust in clinicians, influence engagement with mental health services and disclosures. In addition, some young people raised concerns regarding an overshadowing effect of adversity, where adversity becomes the predominant explanation for all mental health difficulties. They also reported feeling limited by diagnosis led approaches, rather than a holistic picture of them as an individual.

These insights were crucial for helping us better understand and interpret our research findings. The CAPE award helped us consolidate and extend our relationship the National Children’s Bureau and experts-by-experience, helping to ensure that key policy and practice messages from our research were informed by those with lived experience.

Engaging policy and sector colleagues

One potentially important finding from our research is that mental health needs are high for young people who have experienced any major forms of maltreatment. These findings have potential implications for assessment practices and service provision. Supported by the CAPE award and facilitated by NCB, we conducted two workshops, one with policy makers from various departments including the Department for Education and Department for Health and Social Care and one with key parties from other third sector organisations. Again, NCB’s guidance was crucial in helping us combine research evidence with the perspectives of those with lived experience to produce an effective and sensitive account of the policy-relevant findings. The research findings were well received by attendees, with several expressing that the findings reflected much of what they were hearing “on the ground.”

These workshops helped us share findings from the research with senior policy officials and also facilitated an ongoing dialogue with policy-makers. This has included discussion of how harm to children gets defined, and how adversity intersects with other factors to contribute to mental-ill health. Following the workshops policy makers have expressed a desire for further meetings with our team to discuss policy implications arising from our current work on mental health and suicide among young people with social work involvement. Additionally, these workshops helped us create new connections with colleagues from NHS England and the Ministry of Justice.

CAPE funding also enabled us to conduct knowledge exchange workshops with colleagues from leading third sector and practice-focused organisations. Sector colleagues described the importance of our findings as “huge” and as a result of these workshops we have been invited to deliver further talks to various policy and practice audiences. The workshops and work with experts-by-experience have been drawn on to develop policy recommendations based on the research findings.

Personal reflections

As a researcher who strives to do work with real-world impact, the CAPE award has been incredibly formative for my development. CAPE has given me the opportunity to ground my research in the lived experience of young people and share findings with those who are responsible for making policy and practice changes. This is tremendous privilege. Still, academic policy engagement on childhood adversity can be challenging because the stakes are high and the topics are sensitive. Therefore, I feel particularly fortunate for the valuable guidance from our partners NCB in navigating these issues.


The CAPE award was crucial for us in forging and consolidating connections with a wide range of policy and third sector audiences, paving the way for future collaborations. The learning acquired through this award has been decisive in helping us identify future avenues and approaches for policy engagement. In this way, CAPE funding has been instrumental in helping us embed policy engaged thinking informed by lived experience throughout our work.

Future plans

Our group is currently working on various research projects on issues related to mental health generally, and suicide and self-harm specifically, for children and young people with social work involvement. If you would like to learn more about this research we would be delighted to hear from you. For further information please contact Dr Barry Coughlan at or Prof Robbie Duschinsky

About CAPE

Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (CAPE) is a knowledge exchange and research project funded by Research England from 2020-2024, which has been exploring how to support effective and sustained engagement between academics and policy professionals. The project is a partnership between UCL and the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Northumbria and Nottingham in collaboration with the Government Office for Science, the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, Nesta and the Transforming Evidence Hub.

About CAPE case studies

CAPE case studies have been written by academics and policy partners on the CAPE project as reflections on their experience of undertaking academic policy engagement. The case studies include explorations of academic placements in policy organisations and vice versa (called Policy Fellowships), partnerships between universities and policy organisations, and collaborative projects between academics and policy partners.

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