A new report reveals that mental health issues among young people aged 16 and 17 have increased by more than 25% since 2017. This is a worrying trend that shows no sign of abating, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the rising cost of living, and the ensuing economic hardship, plus the fallout from the invasion of Ukraine all playing their part in affecting young people’s mental wellbeing.
Research identifies worrying trend
The mental health of young people is once again under the spotlight. New research published by University Colege London (UCL) and the Sutton Trust, using the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) study, examined the mental health and wellbeing of a sample of almost 13,000 young people across England who were in Year 11 in 2021. Most of the cohort have recently begun Year 13 of their secondary education.
The research finds that almost half (44%) of young people in the targetted age range were above the threshold for ”probable mental ill health,” indicating high levels of psychological distress. This figure increased dramatically from 35% in 2017 to 23% in 2007.
The data shows an overall decline in young people’s mental health and wellbeing, likely accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic but exacerbated more recently by other factors affecting society as a whole.
The psychological impact of the pandemic
Notably, the research showed higher levels of mental and psychological distress were reported among those who suffered from long COVID symptoms or were forced to shield during the pandemic due to underlying health reasons. 66% of those with severe long COVID reported high psychological distress.
Those young people who experienced significant life events during the pandemic were also more likely to report high psychological distress.
Such events included an increase in arguments between their parents or guardians (69%), those who were seriously ill (68%), those who struggled to afford food (67%), and those who argued more with parents or guardians (67%). This compares to 30% of those who did not have these experiences.
The research also revealed considerable differences in mental health by gender identity. Those who identify as female report elevated psychological distress (54%), self-harm (23%), and suicide attempts (11%). This compares to those who identify as male (33% report distress, 11% report self-harm, and 5% report attempting suicide.
Overall, 8% of participants reported having attempted to end their lives. This figure is comparable with 7%, as revealed by data collected in 2017.
Those who identify as non-binary or ”in another way” are more likely to report poor mental health than those who identify as male or female. 69% of this group of young people reported high psychological distress, 61% had self-harmed, and 35% had attempted suicide.
Those in this category were also far more likely to report having experienced bullying. Over half of this group (54%) said they had experienced bullying at school, compared to an overall national average of 24%.
Looking to the future
The research also explored the link between the pandemic, young people’s general wellbeing, and their plans for the future.
The results highlight that 68% of those who had reported high psychological distress say they are now less motivated to study and learn due to the pandemic, compared to 37% who had not reported distress.
Equally, those reporting poor mental health were also more likely to say they had fallen behind their classmates (45%, compared to 27% of those without poor mental health).
Additionally, 71% of those who reported poor mental health stated that their career plans had changed in some way due to the pandemic (versus 50% for those who had not).
More support required
The research highlighted a point that My Mind News is already calling for. Mental health support services that young people are receiving from state schools were not highly rated.
Around half of the pupils from comprehensive (or grammar) schools rated their school’s mental health support as ”not very good” or ”not at all good”. This compared to just under a quarter (23%) of those attending independent schools.
As a result of these findings, the publishers of the report are calling for –
- Improved ring-fenced funding for mental health support in all schools;
- Sustainable and well-funded mental health support for young people, including preventative and early intervention services; and
- Targeted support for non-binary and transgender students.
Speaking about the report’s findings, Dr. Jake Anders, Associate Professor at UCL and COSMO’s Principal Investigator, said,
“The level of young people whose responses suggest concern with their mental health is shocking. And young people particularly badly affected by the events of the pandemic are among those with the highest levels of distress.
But the levels reached are the continuation of a trend that is evident over the past decade or so. While it is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic has sped this trend up, we should not lay all the blame for this picture at its door. Things were bad before, and that means there are big systematic issues that need fixing. This problem won’t get better on its own.”
The findings of this research are highly disturbing, if not surprising. The fact that almost one-half of young people (44%) are struggling with mental ill-health is enormously worrying.
The various factors affecting young people, including the rise of social media, increased social isolation, and disruption caused by the pandemic os all contributing negatively to these startling figures.
The research also starkly reveals alarming differences between levels of male mental health and female mental health, with girls more than twice as likely as males to attempt suicide.
As a society, we must listen carefully to what young women and men are telling us and consider how their distress can be reduced and prevented.