Mental health disorders on rise among children

NHS figures show one in eight people under age of 19 in England had a disorder in 2017. 

One in eight people aged under 19 in England have a mental health disorder, according to the first official statistics to be published for 13 years.

The figures, based on a survey of 9,117 children and young people, showed the incidence of disorders rose to one in six for people aged 17 to 19.

Boys were found to be more likely to have a mental health disorder than girls until the age of 11. Between 11 and 16 both sexes were equally likely to have a mental health disorder, but by the time they reached 17 to 19, girls were more than twice as likely to have a disorder.

Within this age range, almost one in four girls had a mental disorder, and half of those said they had self-harmed or attempted suicide.

This may reflect girls’ concerns about body image, which can be exacerbated by social media. One in 18 women aged 17 to 19 had body dysmorphic disorder, while males between 11 and 19 were more likely to have higher self-esteem.

Children and young people aged between 11 and 19 were found to spend more time on social media, and one in five in the same age group said they had been cyberbullied in the last year.

The NHS Digital survey, published on Thursday but carried out last year, also included pre-school children for the first time, among whom the prevalence of mental health disorders was found to be one in 18. In this age group, boys were more than 50% likely to have a disorder than girls.

The last such report, conducted in 2004 and published in 2005, found that one in 10 children (10.1%) had a clinically diagnosed mental disorder, but it only surveyed children aged five to 15. The directly comparable figures in the new survey showed a slight rise to 11.2

There was a more significant increase in emotional disorders such as anxiety, depression, mania and bipolar affective disorders, which rose from 3.9% in 2004 to 5.8% last year. Experts said the figures reflected their own observations.

Imran Hussain, the director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “Today’s long-awaited figures reveal the true scale of the children’s mental health crisis in this country. Sadly, this stark rise in children and teenagers suffering from a mental disorder makes it clear current government plans are failing to grasp this reality.

“Every day our frontline services see children and teenagers struggling to understand how they fit into the world. They have to contend with things like intense pressure at school, bullying, problems at home, all while navigating a complex 24/7 world with constant stimulation from social media.”

He said early prevention was essential and urged the government to go further in its plan to offer help through schools, calling on it to accelerate plans with adequate funding and targeted support.

Dr Nick Waggett, the chief executive of the Association of Child Psychotherapists, described the government’s plans to expand access to mental health provision for children as “welcome but not sufficient”.

The survey found that one in five people with a disorder reported waiting more than six months for contact with a mental health specialist.

Social media and exam pressures have been cited as factors contributing to the poor mental health of children and young people. Facebook was launched in 2004, while Twitter and Instagram were yet to exist. Since the last report there have also been changes to the school curriculum, including the introduction of new tests.

Jemima Olchawski, the chief executive of Agenda, said the deterioration in young women’s health was alarming but could not just be attributed to body image and social media.

“The sexualisation of girls, the pressures they face around sex, and particularly the alarming levels of sexual and other forms of violence they experience, must be a key part of the conversation,” she said.

Being LGBT+, white British, living in a lower-income household, engaging in risky behaviour, having a parent with poor mental health and being excluded from school were all associated with a higher probability of having a disorder.

Theresa May has vowed to tackle mental health, and her government has pledged a real-terms funding increase of at least £2bn for mental health services in England by 2023-24.

Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s national mental health director, said the figures “confirm the importance of the action the NHS is taking to ramp up access to services, as well as working with schools and families. Our long-term plan will set out further NHS investment for the years ahead.”

The survey used reports from children, their parents and their teachers depending on their age.


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