Mary Jane Amato examines the factors behind declining youth mental health and explores solutions for a happier start in life.
Photo by Ron Lach
A sharp spike in mental health issues hit the UK following the pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions, with some of the worst impacts being felt by children and young adults.
The cost-of-living crisis has also been a significant factor in the continued rise in stress levels, anxiety disorders and severe mental health problems. With recent studies illustrating the extent of the issue, the country is starting to recognise that what was a silent but dangerous problem is now becoming a genuine emergency.
The Impact of Lockdown on Young People's Mental Health
The Children’s Society reported that the percentage of children aged 5 to 16 likely to have a mental health problem has risen by 50% in the last three years, now affecting 1 in 6 children. For those aged 17 to 19, the figure jumped to 1 in 4 between 2021 and 2022. In a worrying trend, the Good Childhood Report 2022 found that 1 in 8 children were unhappy with school, and 1 in 9 children had low wellbeing.
The Covid-19 lockdowns played a pivotal part in these declines. According to a report from Mental Health Foundation Scotland commissioned as part of Barnardo’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Core Priority Programme, since the pandemic young people have reported more significant depression and anxiety symptoms and harmful psychological consequences. The perceived threat of the virus and the confusion, disturbance and isolation imposed by the health-related emergency all contributed to the problem.
The government’s report on Covid-19 mental health and wellbeing found that manifestations of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder increased significantly in children and young people aged 7.5 to 12 years immediately after the pandemic. Some parents and carers also reported more mental health problems in their children over these months, as well as behavioural and attentional difficulties. Happiness levels in children and youth seemed to be at the lowest point during school shut-downs.
The Cost-of-living Crisis and the Mental Health Emergency
Covid-19 and the consequent lockdowns have not been the only factors contributing to this alarming situation. The charity Mind has estimated that the cost-of-living crisis has impacted 8 in 10 Britons' mental health. The circumstances have influenced people's capacity to make space for and manage their mental health. Worryingly, nearly 18% reported that the cost-of-living crisis is reducing the frequency with which they can openly discuss these difficulties.
The Heads Up: Rethinking Mental Health Services for Vulnerable Young People report from July 2022 likewise painted a bleak picture. Drawing on global data, it found that mental health challenges often start early in life, with a potential knock-on impact on young people’s developmental progress, putting them at higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, crime and exploitation.
Calling for a “once-in-a-generation package of support to make our mental health services for children fit for purpose,” Anne Longman, Chairman of the Commission for Young Lives, set out a strong case in the foreword to the 2022 report.
According to Longman, “The Covid pandemic was a disaster for the mental health of many children, and thousands of young people are still struggling with its aftereffects… This deterioration in the mental health of so many of our young people, combined with a mental health support system still not able to cope with demand or reach all of those who need it, is a huge generational threat to our nation’s future national prosperity…’
The percentage of children aged 5 to 16 likely to have a mental health problem has risen by 50% in the last three years. - The Mental Health Society
A Government Failing?
In the wake of a recent study showing that just one-quarter of English primary schools can offer school-based mental health support by the end of next year, ministers have been accused of failing to fully grasp the impact of mental illness striking children.
With mental health disorders on the rise, specialist support teams were created to work with children in schools and address early symptoms, thereby reducing the pressure on the NHS. By the end of 2024, however, almost 73.4% of primary schools in England will not have access to these new mental health support teams (MHSTs).
As the NHS struggles to deal with surging caseloads, a quarter of a million children in the UK with mental health problems have been unable to access help. According to research based on freedom of information request responses, some NHS trusts fail to treat 60% of people referred by GPs. Combined with the lack of MHSTs in many schools, the system is failing those children in dire need of mental health assistance.
"This deterioration in the mental health of so many of our young people, combined with a mental health support system still not able to cope with demand or reach all of those who need it, is a huge generational threat to our nation’s future national prosperity..." - Anne Longman, Chair of the Commission for Young Lives
Listening to Young People's Voices
The mental health crisis affecting the youth in the UK is genuine, and the lack of substantial support from institutions means that it will not be over soon. Another aspect revealed by the numerous reports into the problem, however, is the desire of many charities and organisations to improve the situation for young people.
In March 2022, The Young Foundation published youth-led peer research illustrating that young people became increasingly worried about their future both during and since the pandemic. The increase in anxiety about health, well-being and economic security has impacted young people significantly.
Through the foundation, these individuals are expressing their thoughts and letting their opinions be known. The association with the #iwill fund, connected to the National Lottery Fund, helps them in this endeavour, using their voices to shape the development of the fund itself. The #iwill fund is a collective investment across England which pools money in a central investment pot to establish thousands of new social action opportunities for young people.
The pandemic sowed the seeds for a mental health emergency, compounded by a cost-of-living crisis that has made dealing with mental health even harder. In this context, it is paramount that young people’s voices be heard. Starting from government institutions and schools and moving to social spaces, more changes must be implemented, backed by sufficient funding to support children and young people, setting them up for a happier future.
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Researched by Adrian Windeler / Editor: Laura Pollard / Online Editor: Harry Hetherington