Poor mental health among young people (aged 16 and 17) has increased by more than a quarter since 2017, according to new research by UCL and the Sutton Trust, using the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) study.
The COSMO study, led jointly by the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and the Sutton Trust, is the largest study of its kind into the impacts of the pandemic on young people. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19. The briefing released today explores the mental health and wellbeing of a sample of almost 13,000 young people across England who were in Year 11 in 2021. Most of the cohort have recently begun Year 13.
The research finds that almost half (44%) of young people were above the threshold for ‘probable mental ill health’, using the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12), indicating high levels of psychological distress. This has increased dramatically from 35% in 2017 and 23% in 2007 (from previous cohort studies looking at similar ages), pointing to a decline in the mental health and wellbeing of young people, likely accelerated by the pandemic.
Higher levels of psychological distress were reported among those who have had long COVID or who had to shield during the pandemic, with 66% of those with severe long COVID reporting high psychological distress. Those who experienced major life events during the pandemic were also more likely to report high psychological distress, including those who saw more arguments between parents or guardians (69%), were seriously ill (68%) struggled to afford food (67%), and argued more with parents or guardians (67%). This compares to 30% of those who did not have these experiences.
The research also reveals big differences in mental health by gender identity. Those who identify as female report elevated psychological distress (54%), self-harm (23%) and suicide attempts (11%), compared to those who identify as male (33% report distress, 11% report self-harm and 5% report attempting suicide). Overall, 8% of participants reported that they had ever attempted to end their life. This figure is comparable with data from 2017 (7%).
Those who identify as non-binary or ‘in another way’ are more likely to report poor mental health than those who identify as male or female. A total of 69% of this group of young people reported high psychological distress, 61% had self-harmed and 35% had attempted suicide. They were also far more likely to report having experienced bullying, with over half (54%) saying they had experienced bullying at school, compared to an average of 24%.
The research also explores the link between the pandemic, wellbeing and young people’s motivation and plans for the future. It highlights that 68% of those who had reported high psychological distress say they are now less motivated to study and learn as a result of the pandemic, compared to 37% who had not reported distress. Those reporting poor mental health were also more likely to say they had fallen behind their classmates (45%, compared to 27% of those without poor mental health) and that their career plans had changed in some way due to the pandemic (71% vs 50%).
The mental health support that young people reported receiving from state schools was not highly rated. Around half of pupils from comprehensive or grammar schools rated their school’s mental health support as ‘not very good’ or ‘not at all good’, compared to just under a quarter (23%) of those attending independent schools.
The researchers are calling for:
Dr Jake Anders, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), and COSMO’s Principal Investigator, said: “The level of young people whose responses suggest concern with their mental health is shocking. And young people particularly badly affected by the events of the pandemic are among those with the highest levels of distress.”
“But 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 trend up, we should not lay all the blame for this picture 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.”
Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Today’s highly disturbing findings show that almost one half of young people (44%) are struggling with mental ill-health. Even allowing for some of the factors that we know are affecting young people – the rise of social media, social isolation and disruption caused by the pandemic – this is an enormously worrying increase on the 2007 figure of 23%.
“The research also starkly reveals troubling differences between levels of male mental health and female mental health, with girls more than twice as likely as males to attempt suicide.
“In terms of recommendations we are calling for: improved ring-fenced funding for mental health support in schools; sustainable and well-funded preventative and early intervention services for young people; and local and national strategies to tackle bullying.
“The increase in mental ill-health among the young is a massive and growing problem requiring immediate intervention.”
Lucy Thorpe, Head of Policy at the Mental Health Foundation, said: “Adolescence is a time of great change for all young people and this often brings increased vulnerability in relation to their mental health. For young people experiencing additional challenges such as family discord, bullying or identifying as gender non-binary, this vulnerability is significantly heightened, as this research powerfully illustrates. As a society we need to listen carefully to what young women and young men are telling us and think very seriously about how this distress can be reduced and prevented.
The Mental Health Foundation believes that schools have a vital role in creating a culture and community – modelled by school leaders with the genuine involvement of pupils – that promotes and protects young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Part of this is ensuring that well-evidenced anti-bullying programmes and mental health and emotional literacy are core elements of schools’ personal, social and health education curriculum.”
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