Striking increase in mental health conditions in children and young people

September 12, 2018, University of Exeter
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The proportion of children and young people saying they have a mental health condition has grown six fold in England over two decades and has increased significantly across the whole of Britain in recent years, new research reveals.

In 1995, just 0.8 percent of 4-24 year olds in England reported a long-standing condition. By 2014 this had increased to 4.8 percent. Looking across England, Scotland and Wales using data between 2008 and 2014, reports of a mental health condition in England and Scotland, and reports of treatment for one in Wales, grew by 60 percent, 75 percent and 41 percent respectively.

That's according to the first national-level study in over a decade to investigate trends in mental health problems in and in the UK. Published today in the Psychological Medicine journal, the study is a collaboration between academics at University College London, Imperial College London, Exeter University and the Nuffield Trust. Researchers analysed data from 140,830 participants aged between 4 and 24 years, in 36 national surveys in England, Scotland and Wales over time.

Professor Tamsin Ford, of the University of Exeter Medical School, who was involved in the research, said: "This huge increase in child mental health problems reported over two decades is very concerning. We need to understand how much of this increase is down to a rise in the number of cases, and how much is the result of greater awareness and less stigma, meaning people are more willing to report it and seek help. Both have a part to play, and more awareness could be a good thing as it would mean young people are less likely to experience problems later in life. We have effective treatments including cognitive behavioural therapy and family therapy – we need to get much better at getting them to the young people who need them, as we know that many do not receive the support they need."

The researchers analysed responses to questions asking children and young people (or parents for the 4-12 year age group) for a yes/no answer on whether they had any 'long-standing mental health condition' (any 'currently treated mental health problem' in Wales) and compared this to general long-standing health conditions (both physical and mental). They also looked at questions where responses indicated emotional or psychological distress.

In an accompanying blog on the Nuffield Trust website, research lead Dr. Dougal Hargreaves says these findings could point to a widening gap between the mental health needs of children and young people and the services available. However, he also argues that the increase in prevalence tracked in this study suggests a greater willingness among children and young people to open up about mental health issues and a better awareness of mental health.

Key findings include:

  • Between 1995 and 2014 the proportion of children and young people aged 4-24 in England reporting a long-standing mental health condition increased six fold, meaning that by 2014 almost one in twenty children and young people in England reported having a mental health condition.
  • In 2008, when comparable data from the other two countries was available, 3 percent of 4-24 year olds in England and 3.7 percent in Scotland said they had a long-standing mental health condition, with 2.9 percent of 4-24 year olds in Wales saying they had received treatment. By 2014 these figures had grown to 4.8 percent in England, 6.5 percent in Scotland and 4.1 percent in Wales.
  • The age group with the biggest increases were young people aged 16-24, with young people in England almost 10 times more likely to report a long-standing mental health condition in 2014 than in 1995 (0.6 vs. 5.9 percent).
  • Young boys aged 4-12 were consistently more likely to report a long-standing mental health condition than young girls. This was true across all countries. There was less of a consistent gender pattern in the 12-15 and 16-24 age groups.
  • Over the corresponding time period, the prevalence of total long standing conditions (both physical and mental) decreased slightly in England (20.3 to 19.5 percent,), increased slightly in Scotland (17.6 percent to 22.0 percent) and was broadly unchanged in Wales (13.1 percent vs. 13.5 percent).
  • Long-term trends in reported symptoms of mental health problems (as opposed to reports of a long-standing condition) showed no consistent evidence of an increase in emotional distress. However, the most recent evidence (from 2011-2014) showed concerning early signs of worsening emotional or psychological distress among young adults. For example, the odds of reporting above-threshold symptoms of emotional distress increased by 15 percent per year among young adults in Scotland.

Commenting on the findings, Dr. Dougal Hargreaves of Imperial College London and a Visiting Research Analyst at the Nuffield Trust said:

"We know that there is already a growing crisis in the availability of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, with many more children and young people needing treatment than there are services to provide it. Our study suggests that this need is likely to continue to grow in future. Without more radical action to improve access to and funding for CAMHS services, as well as a wider strategy to promote positive mental health and wellbeing, we may be letting down some of the most vulnerable in society.

"But it's not all bad news. The increase in reports of long-standing mental health conditions may also mean that children and young people are more willing to open up about their mental health, suggesting that we have made some progress in reducing the stigma associated with mental ill health."

Explore further: Key to lifelong good mental health – learn resilience in childhood

More information: Jacqueline Pitchforth et al. Mental health and well-being trends among children and young people in the UK, 1995–2014: analysis of repeated cross-sectional national health surveys, Psychological Medicine (2018). DOI: 10.1017/S0033291718001757

Related Stories

Key to lifelong good mental health – learn resilience in childhood

August 29, 2018
Poor mental health among young people is on the rise in the UK, while access to support and treatment remains patchy. There is now a pressing need to build resilience in young people to minimise their risk of poor mental ...

Girls twice as likely to experience emotional problems as boys, reveals study

January 11, 2018
Girls are more than twice as likely to experience emotional difficulties as boys, while boys are significantly more likely to experience behavioural problems, UCL research has revealed.

4 in 5 adolescent girls have a mental health disorder following sexual assault

July 24, 2018
Eighty percent of young women were found to have a mental health disorder and 55 percent had two or more mental health disorders four to five months after sexual assault, according to a study led by UCL and The Havens, London's ...

Children's mental health survey launched

November 11, 2015
The first report on the mental health of young people between the ages of two and 19 will involve an expert researcher from the University of Exeter Medical School.

Mental health services are failing young autistic people

June 26, 2017
More and more is being done to raise awareness of mental health problems at a public and policy level, and understandably so. One in six adults in the UK has a common mental health condition, and one in 20 adults has thought ...

More young adults getting mental health care under ACA

August 5, 2014
(HealthDay)—The number of young American adults getting mental health treatment has risen since the rule on dependent coverage went into effect with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, according to research published ...

Recommended for you

College students choose smartphones over food

November 16, 2018
University at Buffalo researchers have found that college students prefer food deprivation over smartphone deprivation, according to results from a paper in Addictive Behaviors.

Social media is affecting the way we view our bodies—and not in a good way

November 15, 2018
Young women who actively engage with social media images of friends who they think are more attractive than themselves report feeling worse about their own appearance afterward, a York University study shows.

Study finds mindfulness apps can improve mental health

November 15, 2018
A University of Otago study has found that using mindfulness meditation applications (apps) on phones is associated with improvements in people's mental health.

New research has revealed we are actually better at remembering names than faces

November 14, 2018
With the Christmas party season fast approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to re-live the familiar, and excruciatingly-awkward, social situation of not being able to remember an acquaintance's name.

Older adults' abstract reasoning ability predicts depressive symptoms over time

November 14, 2018
Age-related declines in abstract reasoning ability predict increasing depressive symptoms in subsequent years, according to data from a longitudinal study of older adults in Scotland. The research is published in Psychological ...

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dirk_bruere
5 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2018
Endocrine disruptors
Anonym518498
1 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2018
combination of pot and overdiagnosis

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.