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How has children’s mental health changed in the past year?

New prevalence figures show the post-pandemic surge in young people’s mental health issues hasn't abated

New prevalence figures show the post-pandemic surge in young people’s mental health issues hasn't abated

4 Dec 2023, 5:00

mental health support teams in schools are too narrowly focused on milder issues, a new report has said

It has been over two years since children returned to in-person education after the last national lockdown, yet children’s mental health problems persist. Despite various government initiatives and funding commitments, the incidence remains stubbornly unchanged since 2020. The latest figures paint a troubling picture: one in five are suffering from a mental health problem.

Young people have been hit by a perfect storm of negative conditions. These include disruption to their education and life routines, social isolation, higher parental stress levels and an increase in uncertainty about the future.

School absence, which can be an indicator of deteriorating mental health, also remains high, as EPI have previously explored. The latest data reveals that young people with a mental illness are six times more likely to have missed more than 15 days of school.  

Stark inequalities

The data also shows that teenage girls are acutely struggling with their mental health. Although the rates of mental health problems between boys and girls are similar in childhood, the transition to adolescence presents unique challenges that particularly affect teenage girls.

By the time they are 17, twice as many girls as boys have a mental health condition and, by early adulthood, many have self-harmed at some point in their lives. Scientists have speculated various mechanisms underpinning this gender gap – including the role of social media – but there is not yet a consensus on the causes.

Eating disorders skyrocket

Other difficulties girls face include eating disorders, the occurrence of which has skyrocketed. The latest figures show an alarming 1,200 per cent increase rise amongst teenage girls. Meanwhile, the NHS has failed to meet its waiting time standards for eating disorder services for children and young people, underscoring the need for continued support to the sector to tackle post-pandemic challenges.

Given eating disorders have a high mortality rate, it is clear the government urgently needs to re-double efforts to ensure young people receive timely, evidence-based treatment.

A persistent treatment gap

The government’s approach to addressing these concerns has historically been offered through specialist mental health services provided by NHS trusts. However, the sharp rise in mental health problems since the pandemic has led to a 50 per cent increase in referrals to these services. This has resulted in a gap between the number of young people who need mental health support and the number of young people able to access specialist mental health services.

The system was struggling to meet young people’s needs even before the pandemic with only one-third of those with mental health problems accessing treatment. Due to the rising prevalence of mental health problems, overall access to support remains low; Estimates suggest that as little as one-quarter of young people with a mental health problem are having their needs met.

In the past, government policy focused on treating mental health problems rather than preventing them from developing. However, in 2017 the government published a green paper which recognised the role of schools in early intervention. This laid out the government’s plans to roll out mental health support teams across England to “provide extra capacity for early intervention and ongoing help”.

Currently, these mental health support teams cover just 35 per cent of pupils in schools and colleges. Although school and college leaders have welcomed the additional support, some leaders have expressed concerns that the remit of the mental health support teams has been too narrowly focused on ‘mild-to-moderate’ mental health issues as pupils in their school with more severe needs face long waiting times – sometimes months – for specialist services.

Despite the government being ‘on track’ to deliver its policy commitment to cover one-quarter of the country by 2023/24, it is clear the projections must be updated and ambitions must be stronger to reflect heightened post-pandemic demand.

Given that many lifelong mental illnesses develop in this early period of life, there is a strong case for ambitious action and investment focused on children and young people.

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