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Increase in mental health conditions in children and young people

12 September 2018

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, finds a new study co-led by UCL researchers.

Young people

In 1995, just 0.8% of 4-24 year olds in England reported a long-standing mental health condition. By 2014 this had increased to 4.8%.

Looking across England, Scotland and Wales 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, according to the study published in Psychological Medicine.

The study is the first national-level investigation in over a decade into trends in mental health problems in children and young people in the UK, and was a collaboration between academics at UCL, Imperial College London, University of Exeter, and the Nuffield Trust.

“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,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Dougal Hargreaves (Nuffield Trust), who began the study at the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health before moving to Imperial College London.

“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.”

The researchers analysed data from 140,830 participants aged between four and 24 years, in 36 national surveys in England, Scotland and Wales over time. 

They 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. They also looked at questions where responses indicated emotional or psychological distress.

They found that by 2014, almost one in twenty children and young people in England reported having a mental health condition, a six fold increase since the earliest records used in the study, from 1995 in England.

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 aged 16-24, with those in England almost 10 times more likely to report a long-standing mental health condition in 2014 than in 1995 (5.9% vs. 0.6%).

Across all three countries, boys aged 4-12 were consistently more likely to report a long-standing mental health condition than young girls, while there was not a consistent gender pattern in the older groups.

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% vs. 13.5%).

Long-term trends in reported symptoms of mental health problems (as opposed to 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.

“Without more radical action to improve access to and funding for child and adolescent mental health 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,” added Dr Hargreaves.

Co-author Dr Miranda Wolpert (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences and Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families) said: “This study highlights the need to think wider about how to support the increasing number of children and young people who report experiencing mental distress and difficulties. Specialist services are clearly an important part of the solution, but other forms of self and community support are also important to consider.”

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Chris Lane

Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9222

Email: chris.lane [at] ucl.ac.uk