What is the state of children's mental health today?

Official national data is a decade old, but others point to an increase in mental health problems among young people and ‘historically underfunded’ services.

What is the current state of mental health among young people?

The national data currently available relates to the mental health of young people ten years ago. The most recent national survey of mental health among children and young people in Britain was carried out in 2004 by the Office for National Statistics and published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

In its report into child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), the House of Commons Health Committee stated that the “lack of reliable data about the state of children’s and young people’s mental health in 2014” had been one of the most frequent observations made to the inquiry.

So what do we know?

The 2004 prevalence study said that one in ten children and young people, aged between five and 16 years old, suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. It showed that 6% of children and young people in Britain had a conduct disorder.

Around 4% had an emotional disorder such as anxiety or depression, 2% had a hyperkinetic disorder (similar to ADHD but with some key differences) and 1% had a less common disorder such as autism, tics, eating disorders or selective mutism.

The research also found that between the ages of five and 10, boys were twice as likely to have a mental disorder as girls - a pattern that seems to reverse later in life.

What is changing?

The difficulty in assessing the state of mental health among young people and identifying trends is partly attributable to a lack of “concrete data” and no “reliable time series” according to Bell who claims that what we know today is “very much based on gleaning it from what [old data] we do have.” He explains:

We know that current levels of provision are inadequate to meet children’s mental health needs. Since the last survey was published, children’s lives have changed in significant ways, for example with the rise in the use of social media, smart phones and other new technologies, plus growing concerns about cyberbullying and body image pressures.

In a piece written for the mental health charity, Young Minds last year, the children and young people’s mental health coalition co-ordinator Paula Lavis argued that better data was needed because: “a lot has happened since 2004. For instance, we don’t know how the economic recession has impacted on children and young people’s mental health.”

The recent Chief Medical Officer’s annual report, once again stated that “more up-to-date, comprehensive national statistics are urgently needed.”

Combining data from two large national population-based surveys, the report found that 5-15 year olds with a psychiatric disorder were three times as likely to have a psychiatric disorder in adulthood. According to figures published between 2008 and 2011, between 8% and 34% of young people in the UK have been cyber-bullied, with girls twice as likely to be victims of persistent cyber-bullying. The CMO’s report said that cyber-bullying through digital media “may now be the most common type of bullying.” It also highlighted that an “alarming rise” in self-harm presentations to paediatric departments, particularly among girls had been reported by child psychiatrists and paediatricians.



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