Yesterday’s report by the Institute for Public Policy Research revealed how the number of students disclosing a mental illness when they arrive at university has risen almost fivefold in the past decade. Left untreated, mental ill health problems grow, with students more likely to drop out of university, and there is also an increase in alcohol and drug misuse, self-harm and vulnerability to suicide.
This is a reflection of the substantial increase in the number of children receiving care for their mental health. This is a good thing. Data covering 60% of NHS mental health trusts revealed staggering figures: about a quarter of a million children were receiving mental health care in England. There were 11,849 boys and girls aged five and under receiving help, while 235,000 children and young people under the age of 18 were receiving specialist care.
But the figures also speak to a wider truth: there is no doubt that children and young people are now in environments that make mental health worse. In March, stem4, the teenage mental health charity I founded and am chief executive of, published the results of a survey of 500 12- to 16-year-olds. It revealed a number of anxieties, including exam worries (41%), work overload (31%), friendship concerns (28%), lack of confidence (26%), concerns over body image (26%) and feelings of being overwhelmed (25%). While anxiety may long have been part and parcel of the changes encountered in adolescence, where you feature in the academic and social hierarchy and performance worries are more of a modern-day phenomenon.
One statistic from this survey stood out for me: one in 10 teenagers reported strong feelings of anxiety over current world affairs. This is confirmation of the many reports I have from students I meet through the charity and in my clinical work. The world’s instability and unpredictability – in relation to terrorism, Brexit or the Trump leadership and ensuing world issues – have left children and young people scared and bewildered. In a world of having to constantly focus on success, competition, perfection and uncertainty, they are scared about the decisions that adults around them take and the legacy of these decisions. The Children’s Society’s The Good Childhood Report 2017, released last month, confirms this. Among its key findings were that young people’s happiness is at its lowest since 2010 and that fear of crime was the most common problem, affecting 2.2 million 10- to 17-year-olds, with one in three teenage girls afraid of being followed by a stranger and one in four boys worried about being assaulted.
The feeling of insecurity in children and young people is intensified by the number of adults suffering from mental ill health. One in four adults in England experience a mental health problem while one in five mothers have anxiety or depression during pregnancy or during the first year after childbirth. It is estimated that nearly two million adults were in contact with specialist mental health services at some point in 2014-15, but that probably represents 20% of the people who needed help.
It is not surprising that children and young people are experiencing increasing problems with their mental health. Many have continuous, low-grade levels of anxiety and fearfulness. They face challenging, high expectations when it comes to schoolwork and friendships. Furthermore, they experience a range of adversities, including family financial difficulties, family breakdown, homelessness and emotional neglect.
The Good Childhood Report confirms that one million 10- to 17-year-olds (18%) have seven or more serious problems in their lives (such as a fear of crime, domestic violence and bereavement), while more than half (53%) have three or more problems to deal with. Meanwhile, they look on a world where their parents and elders are vulnerable, their friends are often troubled and the geopolitical situation is unpredictable, hard to comprehend and sometimes terrifying.
With all this at stake, essential local authority mental health services for children and young people are being cut. This makes no sense. It has meant less funding for training and recruitment of specialist mental health professionals and, as a cheaper option, a drive to recruit non-specialists, who cannot offer the treatment needed for recovery. More effective signposting from schools is a positive, but there are fewer services to signpost children to. This is all the more frustrating since, as a clinician, I know there are many effective, evidence-based treatments available to help children and young people recover quickly and effectively.
At a time of transition from the safety of school and home to university, it is not surprising that so many students are presenting with increased anxiety and depression. If we are to stem the increase in mental ill health problems in young people we need to find ways to make them feel safe. They need prompt access to effective interventions delivered by qualified clinicians and mental health professionals that can alleviate their internal turbulence.
At the same time, we need to offer equally rapid support and effective intervention to the adults in their lives. At the level of society, we must take more steps to ensure that we are taking measures to ensure their continued safety in areas such as terrorism and world affairs and be open to listening and allaying fears they may have. Most of all, we need to reassure young people that decisions taken by adults will take their safety and wellbeing into consideration, now and in the future.