Striking increase in mental health conditions in children and young people

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.

The first national-level study in over a decade to investigate trends in mental health problems in children and young people found that 0.8% of 4-24 year olds in England reported a long-standing mental health condition in 1995 and by 2014 this had increased to 4.8%. 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%, 75% and 41% respectively.

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.

In response to the paper, Dr Max Davie, Officer for Health Promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said:

“As clinicians working alongside mental health services, we have known for some time that there is huge demand placed upon them. With the publication of this study, there is now further evidence of this - it must act as a catalyst for Government to take swift action. We know there has been some response to the mental health crisis by the Government with a recent investment in mental health support staff in schools, but without services providing adequate support for all children, regardless of condition or how they enter the system, there is absolutely no way that we will be able to climb out of the dark hole we currently find ourselves in.

“Left undetected or unsupported, mental health issues can be life changing. They can lead to poorer job prospects, issues with substance abuse and in extreme cases, they can lead to death. As this study highlights, more children are talking about mental health, showing the stigma is starting to shift, but without the services to support growing patient numbers it brings, children are left with nowhere to turn. I ask the Government to put all children on an equal playing field by appropriately funding and adopting ‘local offers.’ Doing so will provide children and their families with information to the services available in their area and will allow access much more quickly.”

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% of 4-24 year olds in England and 3.7% in Scotland said they had a long-standing mental health condition, with 2.9% of 4-24 year olds in Wales saying they had received treatment. By 2014 these figures had grown to 4.8% in England, 6.5% in Scotland and 4.1% 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 (5.9% compared to 0.6%).
  • 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%,), increased slightly in Scotland (17.6% to 22.0%) and was broadly unchanged in Wales (13.1% to 13.5%).
  • 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% per year among young adults in Scotland.