Youth mental health is at an all-time low despite the Government investing in a raft of measures to improve outcomes. So, what is going wrong? As we mark World Mental Health Day, I am keen to find out.
World Mental Health Day
Tuesday 10 Oct is World Mental Health Day. It’s an occasion to improve knowledge and drive actions to protect everyone’s mental well-being.
In recent years, we’ve seen growing awareness of the importance of good mental health. On a positive note, schools, workplaces and community groups have increased support and there has been greater focus on how we can boost our mindset. Unfortunately, despite this, youth mental health levels are low.
NHS Digital* reports that 18% of 7-16-year-olds and 22% of 17-24-year-olds have a probable mental health condition. In addition, the Mental Health Foundation** states that 50% of mental health conditions start before 14 and 75% before the age of 18. Despite knowledge of these facts, no appropriate intervention is offered to 70% of these young people before they reach adulthood.
What is Causing A Youth Mental Health Crisis?
Multiple factors impact our well-being from a young age, including:
Our home environment is one factor shaping our resilience. When others in our household have poor mental health, it can have an impact on others. Where conflict, neglect or abuse is experienced, mental well-being is not learnt. Equally, poor housing, financial worries and inequality result in reduced mental health, even in loving families.
Struggling with school work, social isolation and bullying also negatively impact mental health in the formative years. There can be incredible pressure on young people to achieve top grades, join clubs, make friends, fit in and aspire to a worthy career. If they feel that they can’t match these expectations, they are left feeling inadequate.
Young people’s happiness and confidence are monitored in The Princes Trust & Natwest Youth Index. In 2023, these had flatlined at an all-time low. Of those surveyed, 57% reported the cost of living was a cause of concern, whilst 35% stated that money worries caused them stress. Equally, financial security was the biggest life goal of 64% of the 16-25 year-olds.
The Youth Index*** also showed a clear social divide. Understandably, the impact of the cost of living and concerns about future job prospects and security are considerably higher in those from poorer households.
Increasing Mental Health Support Through Educational Settings
Prevention and early intervention are the best way to tackle any health-related issues. With this in mind, the Government focused on increasing mental health support through educational settings. One measure was to roll out a ‘Mindfulness in Schools’ programme, led by teachers, in UK secondary schools.
Alongside this programme, a My Resilience in Adolescence (MYRIAD) study**** monitored its effectiveness. Led by Professor Kuyken, 28,000 students and 650 teachers from 100 schools were monitored from 2015 to 2023. The results reveal that ‘Mindfulness in Schools’ failed to make any improvements to young people’s mental health.
The outcome of the survey prompted Professor Kuyken to comment that:
“The treatment of Mental Health problems belongs in the hands of experienced and qualified mental health providers, not teachers and schools.”
He points out that teachers are not equipped, nor have the time, to deal with diverse and complex mental health issues. Equally, he notes that in the teenage years, a young person’s frame of reference shifts from adults to peers. Therefore, they are less likely to engage in teacher-led group activities. As a result, peer-led activities could be beneficial.
In addition, he highlights the importance of involving young people in the design of any intervention activities. Seeking out the opinions and ideas of young people with lived experience is the best way to better understand what they need. Equally, it is valuable to understand how they want to engage with support services.
Where Should Mental Health Resources be Allocated?
Although the results of the MYRIAD survey showed this particular initiative had failed, it was deemed a success in evidence collection. That’s because, finding out what doesn’t work is as valuable as knowing what does, as it informs the allocation of resources.
Targets to improve outcomes have consistently been missed, which suggests the current provision isn’t working. We know that professional mental health services have insufficient resources to meet the growing demand. As a result of these pressures, support is focused on individuals in crisis and there are long waiting lists of at-risk youngsters. Unfortunately, there is virtually no capacity for early intervention.
The Local Government Association***** has made a series of recommendations on ways to improve prevention and early intervention and mental health outcomes. They invite the Government to:
- Increase the number of health visitors and school nurses that provide family and children support in the early years
- Identify the local support available to children and young people through collaborations between Local Authorities and Integrated Care Systems
- Roll out local support hubs that are accessible to children and young people. (We need to understand what makes services genuinely accessible from a young person’s perspective)
- Gather data on local intervention services, to understand what’s working, identify and fill gaps and create comprehensive, UK-wide provision.
- Tackle social issues that impact mental health, including inequality and housing
Prioritising Youth Mental Health
The future is dependent on the next generation feeling confident, happy, resilient and healthy. With this in mind, they need practical support to feel hope for the future and be determined to achieve.
I believe it is important to make parents, teachers and other influential adults aware of the importance of good mental health. Some can be trained and with insight from young people and mental health specialists, they can provide early-stage support. This is the basis of my current research.
However, these adults also need to know where to direct young people in need of greater intervention. In turn, those local specialist teams need greater resources to enable them to provide responsive services before individuals reach crisis point.
This societal issue isn’t going away, so we need a robust, evidence-informed, long-term plan that prioritises youth mental health.
Do you need help? The following organisations offer Mental Health support to young people and parents:
Hub of Hope: https://hubofhope.co.uk/
Together All: https://togetherall.com/en-gb/