A growing concern about young people’s mental health prompted this question. Sophie Corlett, Director of External Relations at the mental health charity Mind, responds, and signals that much yet needs to be done
What happens if we do nothing about young people’s mental health? This question was put to us recently by a group of secondary school pupils, who wanted to know what happens if the government doesn’t take action.
The question comes at a time when young people’s mental health is high on the agenda. And rightly so. For too long, too little has been done.
More young people are now experiencing problems with their mental health. The latest data shows that 1 in 8 children and young people have a mental health problem. The numbers of teenagers is higher, with 1 in 4 teenage girls having a mental health problem.
We don’t fully understand why more young people are experiencing mental health problems.
We know that the well-being of young people is closely linked to their school-life, family relationships and friendships. There are pressures to succeed at school, ace exams and fulfil family expectations. It is also a period of change – from puberty, sex and relationships to leaving school and starting in the world of work. Young people are also growing up as digital natives, with social media and online gaming. Much has been said about screen time and mental health, but we don’t yet know what the full impact is (if any at all).
Adversity and social deprivation can all also have an impact on your mental health:
- Poor housing in childhood has a lasting effect on physical and mental health in adulthood, even if people move to better quality housing. And 5 million children are living in bad housing across all tenures.
- Children from low income families are at highest risk of mental health problems. The risk is three times that of those from the highest income families.
- Adversity and trauma in childhood can have a significant impact on mental health and well-being. 1 in 3 diagnosable mental health problems in adulthood relate directly to adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse and neglect, bereavement and loss, and having to take on adult responsibilities like caring.
Intergenerational inquality – and action
If we accept that half of all mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24, then we surely have an obligation to act on a scale far greater than we have before – especially when such a power imbalance exists between the adults who make decisions and the young people who are affected, most of whom are below voting age and in the care of adults.
Failure to do so would be to wilfully entrench intergenerational inequality and store up greater, more expensive problems for the future. And that would be unforgivable.
Things are starting to happen. Government is promising to take focused action to transform children and young people’s mental health. They have proposed increasing the support available in and around schools, encouraging schools to have a designated senior lead, and making sure that every pupil will be taught about mental health and well-being. There are also plans to address how long children and young people have to wait for mental health services, with new waiting-time standards.
Such changes are certainly needed. But the Government’s target is to roll them out to less than a quarter of the country by 2023. We are deeply concerned that both the scale and the pace of these reforms fall short of the ambition needed.
Any plans to transform mental health must address all of the above. We need to make sure that young people get the support they need, when they need it. That schools can meet the needs of all their pupils, and values the mental health of everyone in the school community.
But we need to go further and make sure that our public services are informed about trauma and adversity. We must tackle poor housing, inequality and child poverty (not let the gap grow). To do all of this and more, the Government has to put children and young people at the heart of their plans, including in their spending decisions later this year.
Young people experiencing a mental health problem need support and respect. The question asked by the secondary school pupils must not become a reality. We must address the problem and find solutions for our children and young people now.