'Shocking' report suggests stark rise in young people with mental health issues

The proportion of young people experiencing mental health issues has nearly doubled in just over a decade, a new report suggests.

More than four in 10 young people were above the threshold for "probable mental ill health", indicating high levels of psychological distress.

The study's 44% finding is up from 23% on a similar 2007 study and suggests a decline in the mental health and wellbeing of young people has likely been accelerated by the pandemic, researchers said.

Girls suffer worse mental health

A sample of almost 13,000 young people across England who were in Year 11 in 2021 also found differences in the mental health of boys and girls, with the latter appearing to fare worse.

Researchers said those who identified as female reported elevated psychological distress (54%), self-harm (23%) and suicide attempts (11%).

Of those identifying as male, a third (33%) reported distress, 11% self-harm and 5% attempting suicide.

Those surveyed who identified as non-binary or "in another way" were more likely to report poor mental health than those who identified as male or female.

Of this group, 69% reported high psychological distress, 61% had self-harmed and 35% had attempted suicide.

And more than half (54%) said they had experienced bullying at school, compared to an average of 24% among other survey participants.

Impacts of long COVID

The COSMO study is the largest study of its kind into the impacts of the pandemic on young people. It was led jointly by University College London (UCL) and the Sutton Trust and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation's response to COVID-19.

It found higher levels of psychological distress were reported among those who have had long COVID or who had to shield during the pandemic - with two thirds suffering from severe long COVID reporting high psychological distress.

The researchers said there must be 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.

Read more:
Sky correspondent's long COVID struggle

'Big systematic issues' need to be addressed

The study's principal investigator Dr Jake Anders said the findings continue a trend seen in the past 10 years, indicating the pandemic is not entirely to blame and "big systematic issues" need to be addressed.

"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," he said.

"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."