An estimated 16% of all 14-year-olds in the UK in 2015 suffered from mental ill-health. Research which identified the scale of mental ill-health among the UK’s adolescents, and studied its drivers, has focused national attention on the problem, prompting new government policy and strategies for improving young people’s mental health.

Impacts

  • Professor Emla Fitzsimons and Dr Praveetha Patalay’s research provided the first data on the state of young people’s mental health in the UK in over 10 years. This stark evidence, released just prior to the 2017 Government Green Paper, ‘Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision’ in December 2017, helped to refocus national health policy on tackling the high levels of mental ill-health among the UK’s youth.
  • Findings influenced Public Health England (PHE)’s five-year public mental health strategy, by widening its focus from children and young people who access mental health services to include the mental wellbeing of all children, and the risk and protective factors associated with both child mental illness and mental wellbeing.
  • The Department for Education (DfE) used the findings to frame discussion on young people’s mental health and school-based interventions. Research also informed the Department of Health and Social Care’s Prevention Green Paper ‘Advancing our health: prevention in the 2020s’, and its call for urgent action to tackle the broad range of risk and protective factors associated with mental health.
  • The research team created an easy-to-understand infographic that provides a conceptual framework for how to approach children’s mental health in schools and in the community. The infographic was used in meetings with ministers and senior civil servants, cited by PHE as ‘pivotal in guiding its thinking’, and informed DfE, local government and child mental health training programmes.

"The research has enabled Public Health England and other policymakers to clearly communicate the case for a whole system response to children and young people’s mental health, including a focus on prevention and efforts to improve population wellbeing as much as service provision for children and young people living with mental health problems.” (Claire Robson, Programme Manager, Children, Young People and Families, Public Health England)

About the research

Professor Emla Fitzsimons and Dr Praveetha Patalay used data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), an ESRC-funded longitudinal dataset following the lives of 19,000 people born in 2000-2002, to gauge the state of adolescent mental health in the UK. Their study shows that almost one in four 14-year-old girls and one in ten boys of the same age experience more severe symptoms of depression. As the MCS is representative of all individuals born in the UK at the turn of the millennium, this translates to around 166,000 girls and 67,000 boys who were aged 14 at the time of the survey.

Teenage mental ill-health in the UK is a worsening problem. When researchers compared depressive symptoms among 14-year-olds in 2005 with those in 2015 they found that those with high levels of symptoms had almost doubled over this 10-year period.

Their research not only highlighted the alarming scale of mental illness among young people but also drew attention to an overlooked distinction between mental wellbeing or life satisfaction and mental ill-health.

“We find that absence of mental health difficulties is not equivalent to good mental wellbeing,” Professor Fitzsimons says. “Moreover, we find distinct factors associated with child mental illness on the one hand and mental wellbeing on the other, as well as factors that are common to both outcomes.”

The research team identified several risk and protective factors for mental health ranging from being bullied by peers to not feeling safe in one’s neighbourhood, and organised them in four basic groups: individual characteristics; family, relationships and home life; socio-economic circumstances, and the wider school and neighbourhood environment. It was this characterisation of factors into the different spheres of young people’s lives that proved so useful for policymakers, as it very clearly highlighted opportunities for action.

As at least half of all people who have mental illness in adulthood have symptoms by the age of 14, the research indicated the pressing need for early intervention both to identify mental illness and promote positive wellbeing. These findings underpin new government initiatives to identify children most at risk, provide greater support and make discussion of mental health and wellbeing a regular part of young people’s lives.

“Young people’s mental health had been on the side lines of health research for far too long, despite its large impacts on individuals’ lives and society as a whole,” says Dr Praveetha Patalay. “Longitudinal studies that track people over time are essential to provide policymakers, schools and the public with robust evidence that can help improve long-term outcomes for young people.”