We’re sleepwalking into a mental health crisis for our young people
Even before the pandemic hit, the situation was alarming
Jonathan Townsend David Laws
27 January 2021 • 6:00am
We are all aware of the toll that the last year has taken on our young people. At such a critical period in their lives, they have faced untold disruption at every turn.
But while there is wide acknowledgment of the challenges they have faced, as a country we are yet to wake up to the full scale of the mental health crisis affecting the youth of today.
Over the last 20 years, the prevalence of mental health problems had already risen to one in nine of our children – and we know that mental illness often continues into adult life.
Since the pandemic, the lockdown of schools and dislocation which comes with this has further damaged the wellbeing of the young – with some estimates showing as many as one in six children may now have a mental health condition. At the same time, access to mental health support has become more challenging, with clear evidence of a dramatic decline in those being able to get the help they need.
New research from the Education Policy Institute and The Prince’s Trust highlights the concerning state of children's mental health as the pandemic took hold. It points to the fragile state of children's wellbeing even before impacts of social distancing – which we know will be damaging because of the clear link between wellbeing and good relationships and social experiences.
Our findings demonstrate how much "Generation Z" – those born around the beginning of this century – is adversely affected by mental health problems. Over the period of childhood, over one in 10 boys will experience mental health problems.
What we find even more shocking is the relatively worse experience of girls. Of those aged 5-10, 7 per cent suffer from mental health problems. By the age of 11-16, this has doubled to 14 per cent – matching the rate for boys. But by age 17-19, almost a quarter of girls have a diagnosable mental health condition – well over double the proportion for boys. This is a disturbing statistic.
Far too many of our young people are unhappy with their lives, but there is a particular crisis for girls as they move into their later teenage years. Some of this is driven by a lack of confidence about how they look – one in three girls are unhappy with their personal appearance by age 14.
In our report, we have been able to look at the "drivers" of this mental health crisis. What are the causes of this problem?
We find that low family income, physical inactivity, high social media use, bullying, and lack of family support and a happy family environment are all highly correlated with mental health problems.
It is all too clear that even before the pandemic and its related negative impacts on wellbeing, there was an urgent need to take action. There is a strong case for more mental health and anti-bullying content in Health, Education and Relationship Education.
Policymakers need to develop an evidence-based approach to tackling bullying which includes at its very core the involvement of young people themselves. Bullying must become as unacceptable as many other forms of prejudice now are.
We need to encourage more physical activity in the young, and discourage excessive social media use, particularly when this excludes or demeans other young people.
We need more support for fragile families, including a strategy to reverse the recent increases in child poverty.
And we need to be able to identify problems early, and ensure that children have swift and reliable access to properly funded mental health support.
It is clear the damage poor mental health can have on a young person, impacting their education, subsequent employment and overall chances of a positive future.
All of these challenges are exacerbated by Covid. Children now see less of each other. They are less physically active and more reliant on social media. And many families are under more pressure, including financial pressure, than ever before.
That is why schools should remain a priority for re-opening as soon as it's safe to do so, to safeguard the future of the younger generation.
It's also why the Government needs a plan for mental health catch up as surely as it needs a plan for academic catch up. There should be additional financial support to recruit staff with counselling and other mental health skills, improved access to children's mental health services, and better training for teachers.
We are sleep-walking into a mental health crisis for our young people, unless we take decisive action soon.
Jonathan Townsend is CEO of The Prince's Trust and David Laws is Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute