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One in eight children in England have a mental health disorder, NHS report reveals

Numbers struggling with mental health and self harm show ‘we are fundamentally failing a generation’, says NSPCC

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Thursday 22 November 2018 10:39 GMT
A study has found disorders were more common in boys up to age 10 but twice as many girls were affected at age 17 to 19
A study has found disorders were more common in boys up to age 10 but twice as many girls were affected at age 17 to 19 (Spurgeons)

One in eight children in England is living with a mental health problem, according to an NHS report that shows an increase in the conditions over the last decade.

In a class of 30 children, this means four could be expected to be contending with emotional disorders, such as depression and anxiety, behavioural or hyperactive disorders that are impacting their wellbeing.

Among pre-school children, one in 18 (5.5 per cent) now have at least one disorder according to the major report by NHS Digital, which has collected data for young children and older teens for the first time.

It was released within hours of a separate report by the children’s commissioner’s office that warned spending on adults’ mental health is three times higher than on children’s.

Unmet support needs can put children at risk and affect their success in later life, the authors of the NHS Digital report said, after finding that a quarter of 11- to 16-year-olds with a mental health disorder had self-harmed or attempted suicide. This compared with 3 per cent who do not have a diagnosed condition.

Among teens aged 17 to 19 with a disorder, that figure is as high as 46.8 per cent, with young women the most at risk.

The report is based on mental health assessments and surveys with 9,117 young people, along with their parents and teachers.

It found a stark pattern of increased social media use, cyber bullying, smoking, alcohol and drug taking in those with a disorder.

Mental health disorder is an umbrella term, but these were assessed against clinical diagnostic criteria.

To qualify as a “disorder” it had to be causing “significant distress to the child or impacting their function”, the authors said.

Among five- to 15-year-olds, mental health conditions rose from affecting 10.1 per cent of children in 2004 to 11.2 per cent in 2017. This was chiefly driven by an increase of emotional disorders, which now affect 5.8 per cent of young people under the age of 15.

Katharine Sadler, one of the report’s authors and a director at the National Centre for Social Research, said that the rise was “less than some may have predicted, but is still significant”.

Young women were particularly affected, with 22 per cent of girls experiencing an emotional disorder at the ages of 17 to 19, compared with 8 per cent of boys. More than half of these young women reported self-harming or attempting suicide.

This included high rates of body dysmorphic disorder, an irrational feeling that parts of their physical appearance are flawed and must be “hidden or fixed”.

The report comes as ministers have called for time limits on harmful social media use among young people and the report showed people with disorders were more likely to be spending hours online.

Nearly a third said they spent more than four hours on these sites, compared with 12 per cent of 11- to 19-year-olds without a disorder.

“We asked children what they thought the impact of this was,” Ms Sadler said. “Young people with a mental disorder were more likely to agree they compared themselves to others; that likes, comments and shares impacted their mood; that they spent more time online than they meant to; and that they couldn’t be honest with their feelings.”

The report also found one in three boys with a disorder, and half of girls, reported being cyber bullied in the past year.

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Among the preschoolers with a disorder, boys were more likely to be affected largely down to higher rates of behavioural disorders – which affect 3 per cent of boys and 2 per cent of girls.

The main disorder identified was “oppositional defiant disorder” and the authors stressed that this had a serious and measurable impact on family life and their future prospects if left unaddressed.

“These are the kind of children where the family can’t go out because if they do the child is very likely to throw a tantrum, run in the road or take their seatbelt off in the car,” Tamsin Ford, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Exeter, said.

“We are not talking the terrible twos here … Behavioural problems once they’re set up do tend to persist and these children, other research shows us, their outcomes are not great.”

Children with the condition are more likely to develop other mental health disorders, including psychosis and addiction issues.

“People with this condition do struggle,” Professor Ford said.

Alana Ryan, senior policy officer at the NSPCC, said: “When a generation of children are struggling with their mental health with many having self-harmed or attempted suicide, we are fundamentally failing our young people.

“Our own research shows even if children are referred for specialist mental health treatment there is a slim chance they will receive it, which is totally unacceptable.”

The report was released on the same day as a major review of health in Europe, published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It estimated that mental health conditions in the UK alone are costing more than 4 per cent of GDP, more than £94bn in all, of which nearly half is attributable to lower employment and lost productivity among people with a disorder.

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