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Government should be shocked into action over rise in mental ill health among young people

The government should be shocked into immediate action to tackle a growing epidemic of mental health problems in children and young people, the children’s commissioner for England has warned.

Anne Longfield’s warnings come as NHS figures show that the proportion of children experiencing a probable mental disorder has increased over the past three years, from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in July this year.

The likelihood of a probable mental disorder Increases with age, the figures found, with a noticeable difference in gender for the older age group of 17 to 22- year- olds. The data revealed 27.2% of young women and 13.3% of young men in this age group were identified as having a probable mental disorder in 2020.

“This dramatic increase in the number of children struggling with mental health problems, worsened by the Covid crisis, is extremely alarming. It should shock the government into immediate action to tackle a growing epidemic,” said Anne Longfield.

The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020 report, published by NHS Digital, in collaboration with the Office for National Statistics, the National Centre for Social Research, the University of Cambridge and the University of Exeter, looks at the mental health of children and young people in England in July 2020, and how this has changed since 2017.

Experiences of family life, education and services, and worries and anxieties during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are also examined. The findings draw on a sample of 3,570 children and young people aged between 5 to 22 years old, surveyed in both 2017 and July 2020.

Family dynamics

  • The report revealed that among girls aged 11 to 16, nearly two-thirds (63.8%) with a probable mental disorder had seen or heard an argument among adults in their household, compared to 46.8% of girls unlikely to have a mental disorder.

Parent and child anxieties, and wellbeing

  • Overall, 36.7% of children aged 5 to 16 years had a parent who thought their child was worried that friends and family would catch COVID-19.
  • Sleep problems seemed to be a factor during the pandemic with more than a quarter (28.5%) of 5 to 22-year-olds having problems sleeping. Again, those with a probable mental disorder reported experiencing sleep problems (58.9%) than those unlikely to have a mental disorder (19.0%).
  • Children and young people with a probable mental disorder were about eight times more likely to report feeling lonely often or always (29.4%) than those unlikely to have a mental disorder (3.7%).

Access to education and health services

  • Children that were unlikely to have a mental disorder were more likely to receive regular support from their school or college during the pandemic (76.4%) compared to those with a probable mental disorder (62.6%).
  • In terms of receiving help for mental health problems during the pandemic, 7.4% of all 17 to 22 year olds reported they tried to seek help for mental health problems but didn’t receive the help they needed, this rose to 21.7% of those with a probable mental disorder.

Changes in circumstances and activities

  • Almost three in ten (28.1%) children had a parent who said they or their partner had experienced a fall in household income, and 28.7% had a parent who said they or their partner were furloughed or used the self-employed support scheme during lockdown.
  • Children with a probable mental disorder were more likely to live in a household that had fallen behind with payments (16.3%) during lockdown, than those unlikely to have a mental health disorder (6.4%).

“Overall 37.0% of 11 to 16 year olds and 36.4% of 17 to 22 year olds reported that lockdown had made their life a little worse, while 5.9% of 11 to 16 year olds and 6.7% of 17 to 22 year olds said it had made it much worse,” the report concluded.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said: “While there have been some welcome improvements in children’s mental health services over recent years, clearly the scale of the problem is getting worse, and what has been promised is just not enough. The NHS will have to upscale radically its plans for children’s mental health just to meet its existing commitments. Every school needs an NHS funded counsellor as a minimum, and we need a children’s mental health service that is properly funded, with no postcode lottery, so that children receive the support and treatment they need as quickly as possible.”

Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2020

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