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COVID exacerbates mental health problems in young people

The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate existing mental health and wellbeing problems among young people, research by The Prince’s Trust and the Education Policy Institute has found.

A major study on the mental health and wellbeing of young people in Generation Z, based on data from the Millennium Cohort Study, reveals new insights into the determinants of young people’s wellbeing, including how it is affected by their relationships, background and use of social media.

Jonathan Townsend, UK Chief Executive of The Prince’s Trust said: “The transition from childhood to adolescence can be turbulent, and the findings of this report underline why addressing and supporting young people’s mental health will only become more crucial as the impact of the pandemic unfolds.

“Young people are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, so it is more important than ever that they can access support with their mental health during this critical time in their lives,” he added.

The study explores the personal experiences of young people in England at age 11, 14 and 17, and is supplemented by focus group responses from November 2020.
The wellbeing of all young people declines by the end of their teenage years, but there is a strong gender divide. Girls see far lower levels of wellbeing and self-esteem than boys – driven by a sharp fall of both during mid-adolescence.

The report found:
- By the end of primary school, Generation Z girls have similar levels of wellbeing and self-esteem as boys but then experience a sudden decline in both by age 14.

- Girls’ wellbeing falls even lower towards the end of their teenage years, while their depressive symptoms increase significantly.

- One in three girls report that they are unhappy with their personal appearance by the age of 14.

- The pandemic has led to a deterioration in mental health, with the number of young people with a probable mental illness rising to one in six, up from one in nine.

- Young people from the lowest income families more likely to have the worst outcomes.

- Heavy social media use is shown to negatively affect wellbeing and self-esteem in adolescence, regardless of young people’s existing state of mental health.

- Being bullied in childhood is shown to adversely affect both boys’ and girls’ mental and emotional health well into their teenage years.

- Frequent physical exercise impacts positively on young people’s wellbeing – yet participation in activities and sports is expected to have fallen considerably due to school closures and lockdown.

While school closures were necessary in order to protect pupils, positive mental health outcomes are closely linked to relationships and social experiences in the school environment, and researchers fear that the increased isolation seen over the last year risks causing long-term damage to the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of young people.

Researchers highlighted the following factors have a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of Generation Z:

- Those from low-income families are more likely to have lower levels of wellbeing and self-esteem, and more depressive symptoms.

- Heavy use of social media is shown to negatively affect girls’ wellbeing and self-esteem at ages 14 and 17, regardless of pre-existing levels.

- Being bullied in childhood has strong and enduring effects on both boys’ and girls’ mental and emotional health into their teenage years.

- Frequent arguing with parents is linked to lower wellbeing at age 17.

- Being placed in the bottom stream in primary school is associated with lower self-esteem for boys later on at age 14.

- Poor maternal health leads to lower wellbeing and self-esteem and an increase in depressive symptoms in both girls and boys at age 14.

- Girls who feel unsafe in their neighbourhood are at increased risk of worse wellbeing and having more depressive symptoms.

- Frequent physical exercise plays a positive role in young people’s wellbeing and self-esteem and in limiting depressive symptoms, especially for boys at age 14.

Whitney Crenna-Jennings, report author and Senior Researcher at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said: “This research shows that the mental health of young people in Generation Z deteriorates markedly as they enter their teenage years, with girls in particular seeing a big drop in their personal wellbeing and self-esteem from around the age of 14.

“Poverty, heavy use of social media and lack of physical exercise are just some of the factors that we find are directly linked to poor mental health outcomes,” she added.

Young people already face significant challenges at this stage in their lives, but this generation have also had to deal with a pandemic that will have starved them of the vital relationships and experiences needed to support their journey through adolescence.

“The government has provided extra academic support for pupils but there is now a compelling case for it to consider emergency funding to support young people’s mental health and wellbeing. If we fail to counter the ill-effects of this crisis on young people’s health and development, there is a real risk that it inflicts irreversible damage on their later life chances,” she concluded.

The data is supported by Tesco.

Cllr Ian Hudspeth, Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “Coronavirus has seriously impacted the mental health and wellbeing of many children and young people, as this report highlights, while demand for support and treatment continues to grow.

“Delays in receiving these services can lead to issues for children and young people becoming more serious, with the risk that they will need long-term support.

“Councils have a vital role in helping everyone with their mental health and it is vital that early intervention and prevention services are able to help children avoid reaching crisis point in the first place.

“Mental health needs to be at heart of a holistic approach to overall health and wellbeing, which includes access to parks and green spaces, meeting housing needs and providing learning and training opportunities,” he added.

Barnardo's Chief Executive Javed Khan said: “The coronavirus pandemic has felt like a lifetime for children and young people, and the negative effects could last a real lifetime if they do not have the right mental health support.

“This research from the Education Policy Institute and the Prince's Trust highlights the range of factors that contribute to children and young people’s experiencing poor mental health – all of which are exacerbated by the pandemic.

“We owe it to all children struggling with their mental health to use the pandemic as a catalyst for change and build a system that is radically better than the one we had before.

“That means moving towards an inclusive approach to children’s mental health and wellbeing that embraces holistic support in schools and the community, digital services and alternative therapies alongside clinical care – with children and young people having their say in how these services are run. Support for children and young people must help them with all the factors that promote good mental health and wellbeing such as having positive relationships with friends and family, engaging in positive activities, hobbies and exercise and living in safe, stable homes.

“Government must take the lead in this, but schools, communities and charities have a crucial role to play too. We must all work together, across sectors, to make the changes needed to help children recover from the trauma of the pandemic and move on to a positive future,” Javed Khan concluded.

Young people’s mental and emotional health


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