Loneliness, sleeping problems and eating disorders drive mental health crisis

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Worrying levels of loneliness and sleep problems as well as rising incidence of eating disorders are feeding a wellbeing crisis that has left an estimated one in six young people with a probable mental health disorder.

The latest NHS mental health survey research has identified a sharp rise in eating disorders as well as links between mental health and things like poverty, social media, and school absence.

The latest findings (NHS, 2021) show that 17 per cent (roughly one in six) children aged six to 16 in England have a probable mental health disorder.

This is a similar rate to last year’s survey findings, but an increase from 2017 when the figure was 12 per cent – or roughly one in nine.

It is a similar picture for 17 to 19-year-olds. In both 2021 and 2020 the research shows that 17 per cent – or one in six – had a probable mental health disorder. This is up from 10 per cent (one in 10) in 2017.

The findings draw on a sample of 3,667 children and young people aged between six and 23, who were surveyed both in 2017and 2021.

The analysis shows that 39 per cent of the cohortnow aged six to 16 have experienced a deterioration in their mental health in the last four years, while 22 per cent saw an improvement.

Among young people now aged 17 to 23, 53 per cent experienced a decline in mental health since 2017 while 15 per cent experienced an improvement.

Broken down by gender, the research finds that girls now aged between 11 and 16 were more likely to have experienced a decline in mental health (43 per cent) than boys the same age (34 per cent). This trend was also seen among those now aged 17 to 23.

Eating disorders: The research reveals a sharp rise, with the proportion of 11 to 16-year-olds with possible eating problems increasing from seven per cent in 2017 to 13 per cent in 2021.Rates were higher for older age groups. Among young people aged 17 to 19, the proportion with a possible eating problem rose from 45to 58 per cent.

Sleep problems: The latest findings show that 29 per cent of six to 10-year-olds, 38 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds, and 57 per cent of young people aged 17 to 23 were affected by problems with sleep on three or more nights of the previous seven. Across all age groups, levels of sleep problems were much higher in those with a probable mental disorder.

Loneliness: Five per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds and 13 per cent of 17 to 22-year-olds reported feeling lonely often or always. Rates were higher in girls and young women than in boys and young men and in those with a probable mental disorder.

Social media: In 2021,17 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds using social media agreed that the number of likes, comments and shares they received had an impact on their mood, and 51 per cent agreed that they spent more time on social media than they meant to. Girls were more likely to agree with both statements than boys.

Attendance: Around 11 per cent of six to 16-year-olds missed more than 15 days of school during the 2020 autumn term. Children with a probable mental disorder were twice as likely to have missed this much school (18 per cent) as those unlikely to have a mental disorder (nine per cent).

Poverty: For eight per cent of children aged six to 16, their parents reported having recently fallen behind with bills. For four per cent, parents could not afford to buy enough food or had needed to use a food bank. These figures were both higher for children with a probable mental disorder (13 and nine per cent respectively).

The findings echo those of the Good Childhood Report published by the Children’s Society earlier this year. It found that a quarter of a million children had struggled to cope with changes to life during the pandemic and had low wellbeing.

Commenting on the NHS research, Mark Russell, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “It’s deeply worrying that so many young people are struggling with their mental health. The proportion likely to have a mental health disorder is still as high as it was following the first lockdown last year and suggests many children may have long-term support needs for which there is no quick fix.

“It’s clear children and young people are in desperate need of more support. That’s why we want the government to invest in a network of early mental health support hubs in every community where children can drop in and get immediate help as problems emerge and before they hit crisis point.

“Additionally, we want the government to commit to measuring children’s wellbeing as it already does for adults to help identify children who are struggling and how best to invest in the right changes to help prevent mental health problems from emerging.”

  • NHS: Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2021: Wave 2 follow up to the 2017 survey, September 2021: https://bit.ly/3owAmpA

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