Mental Health and Wellbeing Trends Among Children and Young People in the UK

Charlotte Goddard
Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Academics analysed trends in mental health outcomes among children and young people over the last two decades.

Report Mental Health and Wellbeing Trends Among Children and Young People in the UK

Published by Psychological Medicine, September 2018

SUMMARY

Demand for counselling services, hospital admissions for self-harm, and referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) have all increased significantly among children and young people in recent years. As there have been no detailed national studies into trends in the mental health of children and young people since 2007, academics at University College London, Imperial College London, the University of Exeter, and the Nuffield Trust decided to analyse trends in mental health outcomes among children and young people over the last two decades.

The researchers analysed data from 140,830 four- to 24-year-olds, gathered in 36 national surveys in England, Scotland and Wales between 1995 and 2014. They found significant increases in the proportion of children and young people reporting long-standing mental health conditions - or "currently-treated mental health conditions" in Wales - in each country over time. In 2008 - when there is comparable data for all three nations - three per cent of four- to 24-year-olds in England said they had a long-standing mental health condition, compared with 3.7 per cent in Scotland and 2.9 per cent in Wales. By 2014 these figures had grown to 4.8 per cent in England, 6.5 per cent in Scotland and 4.1 per cent in Wales. In England, available survey data shows reports of mental health conditions in children and young people increased six-fold over the study period from 1995. Available data in Scotland shows prevalence more than doubled over 11 years from 2003 and increased by more than half in Wales over seven years from 2008.

Young people aged 16 to 24 were the age group that saw the biggest increases in mental health issues, with those in England almost 10 times more likely to report a long-standing mental health condition in 2014 than in 1995 - 5.9 per cent in 2014 compared with 0.6 per cent in 1995. In older age groups boys and girls were just as likely to report a mental health condition, whereas boys aged four to 12 were more likely to report mental health issue than girls.

Although all three countries saw an increase in reported long-standing mental health conditions, scales measuring psychological distress showed inconsistent trends. There were improvements for some age groups in England and Scotland, but deterioration in scores for 13- to 15-year-olds in Wales. In England results suggested wellbeing and psychological distress may have initially improved for 16- to 24-year-olds between 2010 and 2012 before deteriorating from 2012 to 2014.

The authors say it is possible that much of the reported increase in mental health conditions may reflect a narrowing of the gap between problems that exist and problems that are reported, perhaps due to increased awareness of mental health problems, or reduced stigma.

IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE

Most UK clinicians have responsibility for some patients aged 24 or below and should be aware of the increasing need to consider mental health diagnoses in this age group, say the researchers.

The differing trends between reported long-standing mental health conditions and questionnaire scores measuring emotional distress and wellbeing suggest an increasing range of mental health issues may not be adequately captured by existing questionnaires. The report's findings reinforce the need to consider what constitutes a mental health problem for young people.

As many of the factors driving poor mental health lie beyond healthcare the researchers call for multi-agency working to address wider issues such as poverty, the impact of cuts to benefits and youth services, cyberbullying and early sexualisation.

FURTHER READING

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