Mental health problems likely in one in six children, NHS says

One in six children aged five to 16 now have a probable mental health disorder, the NHS has confirmed.

This represents a notable rise since 2017, the last time research was carried out, when the comparable figure was one in nine.

The research involved 3,570 five to 22-year-olds who were surveyed both in 2017 and in July of this year, shortly after the Covid-19 lockdown and in the midst of the pandemic.

In 2017, 10.8 per cent of five to 16-year-olds were found to have a probable mental health disorder (rising to 12.8 per cent of five to 19-year-olds).

In 2020, this figure has risen to 16 per cent of five to 16-year-olds, with increased rates for both boys (from 11.4 to 16.7 per cent) and girls (from 10.3 to 15.2 per cent).

The new figures have been published by NHS Digital in its report, Mental health of children and young people in England 2020 (NHS, 2020).

Broken down further, they show that among primary-age children (five to 10-year-olds), 14.4 per cent now have a probable mental health disorder compared to 9.4 per cent in 2017. Boys are responsible for most of this increase, with rates having risen from 11.5 to 17.9 per cent.

Among secondary-age children (11 to 16), the proportion with a probable mental health disorder has increased from 12.6 to 17.6 per cent.

What’s more, the likelihood of experiencing difficulties increases with age for young women, with 27.2 per cent of females in the 17 to 22 age bracket having a probable mental health disorder in 2020. This compares to 13.3 per cent of young men aged 17 to 22.

The findings have been drawn together with support from the Office for National Statistics, the National Centre for Social Research, the University of Cambridge and the University of Exeter.

Both the 2017 and 2020 surveys used the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire to assess different aspects of mental health, including problems with emotions, behaviour, relationships, hyperactivity, and concentration.

Responses from parents and young people were used to estimate the likelihood that a child might have a mental disorder, this being classified as “unlikely”, “possible” or “probable”. Due to survey methods, direct comparisons between 2017 and 2020 are only possible across the five to 16 age group.

In the 2020 report, a key finding is that children who were “unlikely” to have a mental disorder were more likely to receive regular support from their school or college during the pandemic (76.4 per cent) compared to those with a probable mental disorder (62.6 per cent).

The research also identifies a number of other factors that seem to be related to mental health difficulties:

  • Among girls aged 11 to 16, 63.8 per cent with a probable mental disorder had seen or heard an argument among adults in their household (compared to 46.8 per cent of girls unlikely to have a mental disorder).
  • Children and young people with a probable mental disorder were about eight times more likely to report feeling lonely “often or always” (29.4 per cent compared to 3.7 per cent).
  • Half of children (50.2 per cent) with a probable mental health disorder had parents who were worried about catching Covid-19 (compared to 33.2 per cent).
  • Those with a probable mental disorder were more likely to report experiencing sleep problems during the pandemic than those without (58.9 vs 19 per cent). This was more common in girls.
  • Children with a probable mental disorder were more likely to live in a household that had fallen behind with payments during lockdown (16.3 vs 6.4 per cent).
  • Overall, 37 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds and 36.4 per cent of 17 to 22 year olds reported that lockdown had made their life a little worse.

The findings come alongside a new report from children’s mental health charity YoungMinds, showing that 61 per cent of secondary school students believe their mental health to have worsened since returning to school in September.

This survey involved 2,011 students aged 11 to 18 and it also found that only 15 per cent thought their school was offering enough mental health support.

Furthermore, 40 per cent of respondents said that there was no school counsellor available to support students in their school, while only 27 per cent said that they have had a one-to-one conversation with a teacher or another member of staff in which they were asked about their wellbeing.

YoungMinds wants to see the government set up a so-called Resilience Fund to help fund mental health and counselling support for young people in schools.

Chief executive Emma Thomas said: “The pandemic has put a huge strain on many young people who were already struggling with their mental health, because of traumatic experiences, social isolation, a loss of routine and a breakdown in formal and informal support.

“While it’s extremely welcome that secondary schools have reopened, our research shows that young people with mental health problems have often not had a ‘soft landing’ in their first few weeks back. While there has rightly been a focus on academic catch-up, young people can only learn effectively if they are in a good place emotionally. That’s why the government must provide ring-fenced funding for schools to help them prioritise wellbeing and mental health this year.”

Commenting on the wider NHS statistics, Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said she was “extremely alarmed”.

“It should shock the government into immediate action to tackle a growing epidemic. 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.”

  • NHS Digital: Mental health of children and young people in England, 2020: Wave 1 follow up to the 2017 survey, October 2020:
  • YoungMinds: Coronavirus: Impact on Young People with Mental Health Needs, October 2020:

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