A survey published today by NHS Digital found one in six children in England had a probable mental disorder in 2021 – a similar rate to 2020 but an increase from one in nine in 2017.

The survey, called Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2021, involved experts from the University of Exeter. It showed that among six to 16 year olds, the proportion with a probable mental disorder remained at one in six (17 per cent) in 2021. Among 17 to 19 year olds, the rate was also one in six (17 per cent).

Figures were statistically similar in 2020 and 2021. In 2020, the rate of probable mental disorders was also one in six for both these age groups.

Both years showed an increase from 2017, when one in nine (12 per cent) six to 16 year olds and one in ten (10 per cent) 17 to 19 year olds had a probable mental disorder.

The survey reports on the mental health of 3,667 children and young people aged 6 to 23 in England in 2021 and how this has changed since 2017 and 2020. Children, young people and parents were also surveyed about their experiences of family life, education, and support for mental health problems during the pandemic.

The survey series used the same questionnaire in 2017, 2020 and 2021 to assess different aspects of mental health, including problems with emotions, behaviour, relationships, hyperactivity, and concentration. Responses were used to estimate how likely it is that the child might have a mental disorder, this was classified as either ‘unlikely’, ‘possible’ or ‘probable’.”

Dr Tamsin Newlove-Delgado, of the University of Exeter, said the finding that the prevalence of probable mental health problems in children and young people had remained stable since the 2020 peak was “concerning”. 

She said: “Many young people have found it very challenging to negotiate the milestones of leaving school or home, starting work or study or looking for jobs in very different circumstances. A quarter of 17 to 23 year olds said restrictions had made their lives much worse. Two-fifths of young people with a probable mental disorder also reported that they hadn’t sought any help or advice between August 2020 and Spring 2021, which is worrying when we know that getting treatment early can help prevent more severe problems later.

She added: “We need to bear in mind that the situation has changed since the survey took place, when the country was in the third period of lockdown. With the lifting of restrictions, hopefully there have been many positive changes in children and young people’s lives which might improve wellbeing. However, it’s important for all of us to remember that some children and young people may find the return to school, college or university to be stressful and difficult, or may experience anxiety around lifting of restrictions and may need more help and support.

“The longer term impacts on mental health and wellbeing are yet to be felt, and we must not leave the most affected groups of children and young people behind as we gradually emerge from the pandemic. We need to continue monitoring children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing over the coming months and years, so that we can identify, plan and provide support for those that need it most, as well as thinking about recovery for society as a whole.”

The report found 39 per cent of children now aged six to 16 experienced a deterioration 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 over that time.

Girls now aged between 11 and 16 were more likely to have experienced a decline in mental health (43 per cent) than boys the same age (34 per cent). This trend was also seen among those now aged 17 to 23, where young women were more likely to have experienced deterioration (61 per cent) than young men (44 per cent). However, some of this change may be due to different rates of mental health conditions being present at different ages.


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