Interview with Gordon Harold

The University of Cambridge’s inaugural professor of the psychology of education and mental health talks about switching from sport to science and why it’s so important to research education and mental health together

May 14, 2020

Gordon Harold is the University of Cambridge’s first professor of the psychology of education and mental health and will take up his post in the Faculty of Education in July. Currently the Andrew and Virginia Rudd chair and professor of child and adolescent mental health in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, he has led several field-changing studies into the relationship between domestic adversity and young people’s mental health, enabling schools and teachers to do more to support pupils with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.

Where and when were you born?
In Dublin, in the late 1960s; living on the north side of the city and attending school in the south. Those familiar with Dublin will understand the unique socio-economic and cultural attributes that differentiated these two “sides” of the city during the 1970s and 1980s.

How has this shaped you?
I grew up in a working-class family and community, where there was limited expectation in terms of academic or professional career pathways. My early interests, like many of my peers, focused on sport and the opportunities it represented by “opening up doors”. I discovered running when I was in my early teens. At the age of 13, I ran the inaugural Dublin City Marathon (which would not be permitted today). I went on to compete internationally and took up an athletics scholarship at Iowa State University in 1986. Sport opened doors for me that I would never otherwise have had the opportunity to consider or experience.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Looking back, I was very naive. I left home at 19, travelled to the US in the days before the internet, and had to balance high-intensity competitive athletics with academic demands. It was a whole new world. I remember being limited to one phone call home on the first Sunday of every month. Yet I was part of an amazing group of athletes and friends during this time, most of whom remain some of my closest friends to this day. I was interested in history and planned to be a secondary school history teacher in Ireland but discovered psychology during my first few months at Iowa State. Since then, my life has never been the same. To this day, I am as interested in and excited by the subject as I was when I sat through that first lecture more than 30 years ago.

Have you had a eureka moment in your career?
Not quite in the same way that Archimedes did. My moment came on a running track soon after I travelled to the US, when I was lapped by two runners who went on to compete on the Olympic stage. I suddenly realised that I needed a new career plan, an experience I am grateful for: it led to renewed investment in my academic interests.

Why is the Cambridge professorship an important one?
It is estimated that by 2030, the costs of mental health to the global economy will exceed $16 trillion, with annual costs to the UK estimated at greater than £94 billion, counting treatment, social support costs and losses to the economy from people who are unable to work. We know that at least 70 per cent of people who experience serious mental health problems in adulthood experience symptoms before the age of 18 years. While there is a strong genetic link, we know that family, school and community settings substantially affect mental health. Promoting new knowledge that equips and empowers parents, educators, practitioners, policymakers and young people to promote positive mental health and more effectively identify and treat poor mental health early is at the core of what this post has been established to promote and facilitate – an objective I enthusiastically embrace.

Why is it important to link education and mental health?
Historically, research focusing on mental health and educational experience has occupied separate academic, practice and policy-related domains. Yet, it is increasingly recognised that mental health affects educational outcomes and that poor educational attainment is a factor in long-term mental health disorders and future life chances.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
That child development is adequately studied and understood by those who most require such knowledge. Aside from parents/carers, the professional practice groups that work most closely with young people to promote positive mental health and educational outcomes include teachers, GPs, social workers, the police and numerous other professional practice groups. Yet the level of training that these groups receive regarding fundamental aspects of child-adolescent development is minimal.

You have provided advice to governments – what are the important things leaders need to get right when it comes to mental health?
One of the biggest challenges is to move beyond a medical model of mental illness or disorder. Mental health problems can occur at any age and, if left unsupported, can develop into serious and lifelong debilitating conditions, at huge cost to individuals, families and society. Identifying problems early and directing the right type of evidence-based support delivered by the right practice professionals to the right intervention targets early is key. This requires a collective and multi-agency strategy, engaging professions that span education, general practice, social work/social care, psychological services, psychiatry and medical services, the criminal justice system, and voluntary and charitable organisations.

What keeps you awake at night?
Obviously, the nightmare of being lapped in that race…joking. Like everybody, I have the usual worries that occupy thinking, but I read a quote recently: “Worrying is like paying significant interest on a loan that you might never actually take out.” I think there is value in these words.

What brings you comfort?
I do still enjoy running. Hearing my children laugh is without question one of the most comforting and satisfying experiences I have known. And, of course, the satisfaction and comfort of seeing the product of research efforts bear fruit in practice and in benefiting those in need.

Anna McKie


Dame Julia Unwin has been appointed pro chancellor and chair of York St John University’s governing body. She was chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust for 10 years before stepping down at the end of 2016. She has also held senior-level roles at the Housing Corporation, the Charity Commission and the Food Standards Agency. Dame Julia said she was “proud to be joining an institution that has played such a critical role in the city of York” and was looking forward to supporting “its mission to provide education, training and research for the benefit of all”.

Stephen Jarvis has been appointed pro vice-chancellor and head of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Birmingham. He is currently deputy pro vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Warwick and was head of its department of computer science from 2013 to 2018. Professor Jarvis, a computational scientist whose research has been employed by industry and national laboratories to address scientific problems, will join Birmingham at the end of June. He said he looked forward to “working with staff and students as we discover, apply and translate science to shape solutions to significant human challenges”.

Jodieann Dawe has been appointed director of research and innovation services at the University of South Australia. She is currently director, research development and support, at Flinders University.

Teresa Kaye Woodruff has been named the new provost and executive vice-president for academic affairs at Michigan State University. She is currently dean of the graduate school and associate provost for graduate education at Northwestern University.

Jack Knott has been named the Drukier dean of the Steinhardt School at New York University. He is currently the Irwin C. and Ione L. Piper chair and dean of the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

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