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High rates of poor mental health among children and young people

One in eight 5-19 year olds in England affected, new report shows

Caroline White

Friday, 23 November 2018

One in eight children and young people between the ages of five and 19 had poor mental health in England in 2017, with around one in four 11-16 year olds having self-harmed or attempted suicide, reveals a major new report* of the state of child mental health, published by NHS Digital.

Healthcare leaders have described the findings as deeply worrying and concerning and have called for urgent action and a more integrated approach to mental health.

The report combines survey responses for 9117 children and young people or their parents and teachers, and includes pre-schoolers.

It found that among five to 15-year-olds, the overall prevalence of mental disorders rose slightly, from 9.7% in 1999 to 11.2% in 2017. When including five to 19-year-olds, the 2017 prevalence was 12.8% (one in eight).

Mental disorders were grouped into four broad categories: emotional; behavioural; hyperactivity; and other less common disorders.

Emotional disorders have become more common among five to 15-year-olds, rising from 4.3% in 1999 to 5.8% in 2017, the responses show.

Different disorders were more or less common at different stages of childhood, with rates of mental disorder higher in older age groups.

  • Around one in 20 (5.5%) pre-schoolers had at least one mental disorder at the time they were surveyed. Behavioural disorders were evident in one in 40 (2.5%).
  • One in six (16.9%) 17 to 19-year-olds had a mental health issue with one in 16 (6.4%) experiencing more than one disorder at the time of the interview. This age group had the highest rate of emotional disorders (14.9%). 
  • Young women aged 17 to 19 were more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to have a mental disorder. They also had higher rates of emotional disorder and self-harm: nearly one in four (22.4%) had an emotional disorder.
  • Some 5.6% of young women had body dysmorphic disorder, an anxiety disorder characterised by the obsessive idea that some aspect of their body or appearance is severely flawed and warrants exceptional measures to hide or fix. 
  • A third (34.9%) of 14 to 19-years-olds who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or with another sexual identity had a mental disorder, compared with 13.2% of those who identified as straight.
  • Around one in four (25.5%) 11 to 16-year-olds with a mental disorder had self-harmed or attempted suicide at some point, compared with 3% of those not diagnosed with a mental health issue. Among 17 to 19-year-olds with a mental disorder, nearly half (46.8%) had self-harmed or attempted suicide.
Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health described the findings as “alarming.”

He added: “We have long known of the mental health crisis that engulfs our country but the resources are simply not available to help these vulnerable young people…Without action, children living with the conditions will face a miserable existence without timely access to support.”

He pointed out that the extra funds (£2bn) the government had earmarked out of the additional NHS investment wasn’t enough by itself.

“Children need to be able to access services regardless of the time and place they present with a problem. And with around 6% of preschool children identified as having at least one mental disorder, early intervention will be key to improve life chances,” he said.

The government’s Long-Term Plan was an excellent opportunity to include mental health training for all professionals, the adoption of ‘local offers’ and crucially, the integration of child health with primary care and other agencies into the mental health system, he suggested.

Sean Duggan, chief executive of the Mental Health Network, said: “It is deeply concerning to see an increasing number of young people struggling with their mental health, but we must also welcome the fact there is now a greater awareness of these issues among our children.

“Evidence shows prevention and early intervention are crucial so we hope the ambitions of the recent Children and Young People’s Mental Health green paper and the upcoming NHS long-term plan – which we are promised will have a focus on children and young people’s mental health – will make a real difference to young lives."

BMA consultants committee deputy chair and NHS child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dr Gary Wannan, said the findings were “not at all surprising given that the BMA has for a long time warned of the need for greater investment in child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) to be able to meet the rising demand.”

“The government must look to remedy the disparity that exists for both children and adults throughout the country, recognising the importance of a comprehensive preventative approach; one that considers the impact on mental health across all new policy changes.”
*Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017. NHS Digital, 22 November 2018.

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