New research from University College London and the Sutton Trust has revealed that mental health problems in 16 and 17-year-olds have increased by over 25% since 2017.
The study tracks the mental health problems, wellbeing, and educational outcomes of 12,800 young people across England who were in year 11 in early 2021. It was led by the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) and the Sutton Trust.
The findings were published in the Covid Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) study, the largest study to investigate the impact of the pandemic on young people.
More young people are experiencing mental health problems
The report highlights a significant proportion of young people are experiencing mental health problems and poor wellbeing. The figures indicate that 44% of young people are scoring above the threshold for ‘probable mental health’, confirming growing levels of psychological distress. This number is up from 35% in 2017 and 23% in 2007, underlining the steady decline in the mental health and wellbeing of young people.
COSMO Principal Investigator Dr Jake Anders (UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities) said: “The level of young people whose responses suggest concern with their mental health is shocking. And young people particularly affected by the events of the pandemic are among those with the highest levels of distress.
“The levels reached are the continuation of a trend that is evident over the past decade or so. While it is likely that the Covid-19 pandemic has sped this up, we should not lay all the blame at its door. Things were bad before and that means there are big systematic issues that need fixing. This problem won’t get better on its own.”
The researchers are attributing the COVID-19 pandemic to the growing decline. Being infected with COVID-19 was also linked to poorer mental health. The study found that young people were likely to report high levels of psychological distress if they had been infected (47% versus 41% for those who had not had COVID). The researchers also looked at individuals who had or recovered from long COVID, at 55%, or had severe long COVID that affected their ability to carry out daily activities (66% versus 42% with mild long COVID).
Gender identity and mental health
The study uncovered patterns in mental health problems and gender identity. Those identifying as non-binary are more likely to report poor mental health than those who identify as male or female. Almost 70% of those identifying as non-binary reported high psychological distress, compared to 54% of those who identified as female and 33% of those who identify as male.
Furthermore, a total of 61% of non-binary respondents had self-harmed, compared to 23% of females and 11% of males. Over a third of non-binary participants attempted suicide compared to 11% of females and 5% of males. They were also more likely to report bullying, with 54% saying they experienced bullying at school, compared to 27% of girls and 20% of boys.
How wellbeing influences future plans and motivation
The researchers analysed whether wellbeing and motivation towards the future were related. They found 68% of participants who reported high psychological distress are less motivated to study and learn due to the pandemic, compared to 37% who did not. Those reporting mental health problems also state they had fallen behind their classmates (45% versus 27% of those without poor mental health) and that their career plans changed following the pandemic (71% versus 50%).
Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of Sutton Trust and Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Today’s stark findings highlight that a significant proportion of young people are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing. They serve as a bleak reminder that the pandemic has impacted all aspects of young people’s lives.
“We must act now to ensure that all young people are able to get the help they need. There must be far greater levels of support available through well-funded mental health services, both in and out of school.”