One in six children in England suffering poor mental health

More than two fifths of children reported a fall in their mental wellbeing between 2017 and 2021

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Thursday 30 September 2021 19:25
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<p>Charities warn that the government must do more to get children the help they need</p>

Charities warn that the government must do more to get children the help they need

One in six children in England had a mental health disorder in 2021, according to a new survey by the NHS.

Figures released today by NHS Digital also show there has been a significant deterioration in mental health for children and young people in the past four years.

Separately, NHS England has today accepted, in new guidance to the NHS, that up to 1.5 million people may be waiting for mental health treatment and are yet to receive it as a result of the impact of coronavirus.

The survey of more than 3,600 young people found 17 per cent of children aged six to 16 in England had a probable mental health disorder, with the same rate for teenagers aged 17 to 19.

The results are similar to rates in 2020, but show a considerable increase in child mental health problems in the past five years, with rates rising from one in nine in 2017.

Since then, 39 per cent of children now aged six to 16 experienced a drop in their mental health between 2017 and 2021, while 22 per cent saw an improvement.

Among young people now aged 17 to 23, 53 per cent experienced a decline in mental health since 2017 and 15 per cent experienced an improvement.

Charities helping children warned today that the government must do more to get children the help they need.

Director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, Imran Hussain, said: “These shocking figures show the true scale of the mental health crisis facing the NHS in England.

“Chronically underfunded NHS services now face being overwhelmed in the near future given the damage being done to children’s mental health after 18 months of fear, anxiety and disruption to their formative years.

“We cannot sit back and watch this unfold. Children need support as soon as a problem is identified, and not be left to suffer in silence on a waiting list for months on end, risking even more damage to their mental health.”

The survey was carried out earlier this year by the Office for National Statistics, the National Centre for Social Research, the University of Cambridge and the University of Exeter.

It examined the mental health of young people asking them their views on family life, education, services and experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A total of 3,667 children and young people aged between six and 23 were questioned in 2017 and 2021 with the results weighted so they are representative for all children in England.

NHS Digital’s report looks at the individual changes in mental health over time for the same group of children and young people.

Girls now aged between 11 and 16 were more likely to have experienced a decline in mental health than boys the same age, 43 per cent versus 34 per cent. This trend was also seen among those now aged 17 to 23, where 61 per cent of young women were more likely to have experienced a deterioration compared to 44 per cent of young men.

The proportion of those aged 11 to 16 with possible eating problems increased from 7 per cent in 2017 to 13 per cent in 2021.

Eating disorder charity Beat said the problems needed to be taken serious.

Director of external affairs, Tom Quinn, said: “The increase in the proportion of children and young people in England reporting possible eating problems is concerning but sadly not surprising – we know that eating disorder services have experienced a significant rise in demand and younger children presenting, even before Covid.

“The behaviours and thinking patterns assessed in the survey, such as concerns about eating interfering with their life, or believing themselves to be at a higher weight, are often an early indicator of an eating disorder and should be taken extremely seriously.

“It is of the utmost importance that anyone experiencing these behaviours is assessed and treated at the very earliest opportunity before they have the chance to manifest into something even more serious.”

In 2021, over a quarter of children aged six to 10, over a third of young people aged 11 to 16 and over half of those aged 17 to 23 were affected by problems with sleep on three or more nights out of the previous seven. Across all age groups, levels of sleep problems were much higher in those with a probable mental disorder.

In 2021, 5 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds and 13 per cent of 17- to 22-year-olds reported feeling lonely often or always.

An NHS spokesperson said: “The pandemic has inevitably had an impact on the nation’s mental health, with parents and young people especially stepping up to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic, and NHS teams supporting over 600,000 children and young people by providing specialist mental health care.

“The NHS is rapidly accelerating plans to treat an additional 345,000 young people as parts of its Long Term Plan, with nearly 200 NHS mental health teams in schools in place covering over one million pupils, as well as rolling out a free mental health crisis line for anyone who might need them.”

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