Four charts which explain the state of children’s mental health in 2023
Last week, NHS England released data exploring the mental health of children and young people in 2023. Using survey responses from young people and parents and input from clinicians, NHSE have generated estimates of ‘probable’ and ‘possible’ mental health disorders. In this blog, we explore overall trends in the prevalence of mental ill-health, inequalities by social and demographic factors, and discuss the implications of these findings.
The post-pandemic surge in mental health problems has not gone away
Since 2020, the government has been publishing annual data on the prevalence of diagnosable mental health issues in children and young people – and the most recent pre-pandemic prevalence data was released in 2017. The latest figures show that one in five young people aged 8 to 25 have a probable disorder, or up to four pupils in an average secondary classroom. There has been a substantial increase from 2017, when prevalence stood at about one in eight. Despite additional government funding to address post-pandemic challenges, these findings highlight that the increase in mental health problems seen during the pandemic continues to affect young people today.
The prevalence of mental health is highest in 17-to-19-year-olds
The prevalence of mental health problems varies by age. Mental health issues are least prevalent in younger children aged eight to ten (at 15.7 per cent) and decreased in this group for a second consecutive year. The prevalence of mental ill-health was highest in 17- to 19-year-olds, 23.3 per cent of whom are estimated to have a mental health disorder. This year’s data also shows that mental health issues amongst teenagers remain higher than before the pandemic.
Adolescent girls are most likely to have mental health problems
The gender gap in later adolescence and early adulthood remains stark overall for mental health disorders, with twice as many girls with a probable disorder compared with boys. Although rates are similar in childhood, prevalence begins to diverge in adolescence and the gap widens with age. Almost a third of all 20- to 25-year-old women are likely to have a mental illness, the majority of whom have self-harmed at some point in their lives.
The reasons behind the gender gap – including the role of social media – are not fully clear, and more research into the array of biological, psychological and social factors which are driving this gap is needed to design effective interventions.
Family financial situation is linked to worse mental health
The data also shows significant inequalities in mental health outcomes across a range of measures of socio-economic disadvantage. Young people with a probable mental illness were almost three times as likely to have parents who have fallen behind on bills (18.7 per cent v 6.8 per cent of those without a disorder).
What are the implications of the ongoing high prevalence of mental health issues in young people?
As we will lay out in an upcoming report, ‘Children and young people’s mental health services: Targets, progress and barriers to improvement’, government plans to address the gap between the level of need have been insufficient. Although estimates vary, only a minority of young people with a mental health disorder are currently accessing treatment. If young people are seen for an assessment, they can expect to wait on average six weeks before they start treatment, and if they make it to the end of treatment, only a minority will see improvements in their symptoms (according to available data which currently covers very few service users).
The government’s long-term strategy has yet to be updated in the wake of the pandemic and the significant increase in the number of young people with mental health issues. This new data confirms that the government must take ambitious action to address the high rates of mental illness in children and young people. Given that many lifelong mental illnesses tend to develop in this early period of life, the case for investment focused on children and young people is strong.