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Be(ing) prepared: Guide and Scout participation, childhood social position and mental health at age 50—a prospective birth cohort study
  1. Chris Dibben1,
  2. Chris Playford2,
  3. Richard Mitchell3
  1. 1University of Edinburgh, Institute of Geography, Edinburgh, UK
  2. 2University of Edinburgh, Administrative Data Research Centre Scotland, Edinburgh, UK
  3. 3Department Public Health, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Chris Dibben, University of Edinburgh, Geography Building, Drummond Street, Edinburgh EH8 9XP, UK; chris.dibben{at}


Background Mental health is a major concern in many countries. We explore whether youth participation in the Scouts and Guides could protect mental health in later life and in particular whether it might reduce inequalities in mental health associated with early life socioeconomic position.

Methods Using the 1958 birth cohort National Child Development Study, we tested whether Scouts–Guide attendance was associated with mental health (SF-36, Mental Health Index (MHI-5)) controlling for childhood risk factors and interacted with social class.

Results Of the 9603 cohort members, 28% had participated in the Scouts–Guides. The average MHI-5 score was 74.8 (SD 18.2) at age 50. After adjustment, for potential childhood confounders, participation in Scouts–Guides was associated with a better MHI-5 score of 2.22 (CI 1.32 to 3.08). Among those who had not been a Scout–Guide, there was a gradient in mental health at age 50 by childhood social position, adjusting for other childhood risk factors. This gradient was absent among those who had been a Scout–Guide. Scout–Guides had an 18% lower odds of an MHI-5 score indicative of mood or anxiety disorder. The findings appeared robust to various tests for residual confounding.

Conclusions Participation in Guides or Scouts was associated with better mental health and narrower mental health inequalities, at age 50. This suggests that youth programmes that support resilience and social mobility through developing the potential for continued progressive self-education, ‘soft’ non-cognitive skills, self-reliance, collaboration and activities in natural environments may be protective of mental health in adulthood.

  • Life course epidemiology

This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt and build upon this work, for commercial use, provided the original work is properly cited. See:

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  • Twitter Follow Chris Playford at @playford_chris

  • Contributors Conceived by RM, CD designed the study and carried out an initial analysis, CP completed the analysis with CD, CD drafted the manuscript and all contributed to and approved the final version.

  • Funding Economic and Social Research Council (grant number ES/L007487/1). This work was supported in part by the UK Economic and Social Science Research Council grant number ES/L007487/1.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethics approval National Health Service Medical Research Ethics Committee (REC) system approval was obtained for NCDS sweeps from 2000 on. Earlier sweeps predated the establishment of the MREC system. Available records suggest that there was only internal ethical review for these surveys.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement All data used in this study from the National Child Development Study are available through the UK Data Service.