For the first time in 13 years, new statistics about the mental health of children and young people in England have been released by NHS Digital. These new figures shed light on the current level of mental health problems among children and young people, and the factors associated with mental health. I have reviewed the data and here I will highlight some of the most noteworthy trends and findings:
How many children have mental health problems?
The last survey, conducted in 2004, found that 1 in 10 children aged 5-15 had a mental health disorder (either emotional, behavioural, hyperactive, or other). In the newly released 2017 figures, this has risen to 1 in 9. When we include older children and look across all children and young people aged 5-19, we find that 1 in 8 (12.8%) have at least one mental disorder.
This change was largely driven by an increase in emotional disorders (including anxiety and depression), which for 5-15-year-olds rose from 3.9% in 2004 to 5.8% in 2017. Across the whole group of 5-19-year olds, around 1 in 12 (8.1%) reported an emotional disorder.
Gender and age
The type and frequency of mental health disorders is different across ages and genders and, overall, rates of mental disorders rose with age. Boys were more likely to have a disorder among younger age groups, and girls were more likely to have a disorder among older age groups. For the 17-19 age group, nearly 1 in 4 young women had a disorder, with emotional disorders (particularly anxiety) the most commonly reported.
It is concerning that, of young women in this age group with a disorder, over half (52.7%) reported that they had self-harmed or attempted suicide.
The proportion of children with emotional and behavioural disorders, broken down by age, gender, and disorder type.
Use of services
Despite so many children needing support, only 1 in 4 young people with a mental disorder reported accessing specialist mental health services in the previous year. Children and young people were much more likely to have accessed informal support sources (such as online support, or from their friends and family), or other forms of professional support (e.g. teachers or primary care professionals).
Factors associated with mental health problems
The survey also asked questions about a range of other factors and looked at their relationship to mental health. The figures show what many have been saying for some time: some groups in society are more likely to be affected by mental health disorders.
Income & Adversity
Disorders were more common among children living in lower income households and children whose parents were in receipt of low-income benefits. Disorders were also more likely among children who had experienced challenging life situations, such as their parents separating or having financial difficulties.
Children who had a mental disorder were twice as likely to have been bullied or cyberbullied in the previous year. They were also more likely to report that they had bullied or cyberbullied others, suggesting that both those being bullied, and the bullies themselves, may be in need of targeted support.
Young people 14 to 19 years old who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or other were more likely to have a mental disorder (34.9%) than those who identified as heterosexual (13.2%)
Family and relationships
Family and social support also had an association with mental health disorders. Rates of disorder were higher for children whose parents had a mental health problem, or who received disability-related income, and for children whose families had the lowest levels of functioning.
This was particularly pronounced for very young children (aged 2-4). 14.9% of children whose parents had poor mental health had a disorder themselves by the age of 4. Children with a disorder were less likely to participate in school-based or other external clubs (e.g. afterschool clubs, sports, arts, music or drama clubs) and were more likely to report low levels of social support, and smaller social networks.
Certain behaviours were also associated with mental health. 11 to 16-year olds with a disorder were more likely to have tried a cigarette, an e-cigarette, or used illicit drugs.
Social media use was extremely common among young people (95.1% of 11 to 19-year olds reported using it, and 79.1% reported using it daily), and the overall use of social media was not associated with mental disorder.
However, how social media was used did show a relationship. Those with a mental disorder were more likely to use social media every day, use social media for longer periods of time, and were more likely to report that use of social media had an impact on their mood and/or made them compare themselves to others (particularly the case for young women).
These figures illustrate how mental health disorders can occur from early childhood, and that their prevalence increases with age, particularly for young women. This highlights the importance of intervening early to prevent the development of mental health problems.
The factors associated with mental health disorders in these statistics point toward environmental and social influences that can act as important risk and protective factors for young people’s mental health. Capitalising on opportunities to provide children with supportive environments early may be key for ensuring good mental health for all children and young people.
Our mental health in schools campaign
Our Make it Count campaign is focussed on ensuring schools serve as one of these places.
There is no one single way for schools to provide such an environment. To make them mentally healthy places for all who attend and work in them, a “whole-school” approach to prevention needs to be pursued. Teachers, leadership, the curriculum, children, and access to support all contribute to creating a mentally healthy, nurturing environment for children and young people. The Mental Health Foundation is calling on the government and schools to address all these elements to deliver effective change.