Is youth mental health getting better or worse?

Wednesday 13 March 2024
Small group o teenagers are talking to a mental health professional in a support group at the community centre

There's growing concern about the mental health of children and young people in the UK. But is it really getting worse, and what are the factors affecting it?

Youth mental health has declined in the last few years

One in six children aged 5-16 are likely to have a mental health problem. This figure has gone up by 50% in the last three years. Between 2021 and 2022 alone, the proportion of older young people aged 17-19 in England with a probable mental health disorder jumped from one in six to one in four.

What factors are making youth mental health worse?

- The pandemic
Covid-19 had a lasting impact on young people’s wellbeing. 42% of children tell us they worry about mental health now. This is up from 29% before the pandemic happened. Over a third of parents of under-fives think their children’s long-term mental wellbeing will be affected.

- Poverty and money worries
Almost a third of all children tell us they worry about their family having enough money to live comfortably. This goes up to nearly half in children from low-income backgrounds. With the cost of living crisis pushing more UK families into poverty, this figure is set to increase. Children with a probable mental disorder are more likely to live in a home experiencing financial difficulty than those without.

- The pros and cons of social media
Social media offers young people the opportunity to express themselves and connect with others. More than half of all young people say online life has a positive impact on their relationships with friends. But it can also be a space that invites comparison. Young people are still developing their sense of identity and self-worth and are particularly vulnerable to pressures to look or live a certain way. Some young people also experience cyberbullying, with those with a probable mental disorder being twice as likely to report being bullied online.

- School pressure
The demands of school life can affect young peoples’ mental health. Children with a probable mental disorder miss more school than those who don’t.

Young people have too much on and too many choices to make. Everyone’s trying to get the best grades. There’s too much pressure.

Esther, an Action for Children Youth Ambassador. Esther has gone through our wellbeing programme for 13–19-year-olds, The Blues Programme.

Is mental health affecting how young people view their childhoods overall?

Young people know more about mental health these days and are aware that their mental wellbeing can affect their lives more broadly. A recent study by Action for Children reported that children listed mental health as one of their top five concerns.

Parents, grandparents and guardians are worried about their young peoples’ wellbeing, too. 57% of parents and 64% of grandparents think childhoods are worse today than previous generations. This isn’t right - quality of life should be getting better with every generation, not worse.

What support is available for young people?

Early intervention can make a huge difference when it comes to mental health. But in a recent YoungMinds survey, three-quarters of parents said that their child's mental health had deteriorated while waiting for support from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

And while more than half of 16–25-year-olds have seen their GP about their mental health at some point, many aren’t seeking the help they need. Some young people don’t feel that their problem is ‘bad enough’. Others would prefer not to go through their GP to get support on mental health issues.

Young people shouldn't have to wait for a mental health crisis to know it’s ok to get help, and they should know that whatever they are going through, they will get the caring support they need.

What does Action for Children do to support young people with their mental health?

Action for Children services help young people to feel heard, and give them tools to build the resilience they need to face life’s challenges. In the year 2022/2023 we supported 88,689 young people with their mental and emotional wellbeing. The brutal cost of living crisis and the increasing poverty levels in the UK are taking a severe toll on children's mental health. At a time when families are celebrating, others are struggling to feed their children and keep them warm.

Our internationally acclaimed Blues Programme is a six-week wellbeing programme for young people aged 13-19. The programme gets young people talking. Participants learn to support themselves and one another through listening, learning to challenge negative thoughts and finding coping strategies that work for them. 79% of students say it improved their wellbeing.

Our Parent Talk service provides free, down-to-earth information and advice for parents of children aged 0-19. Parent Talk offers articles on a wide range of topics along with a 1:1 live chat service where parents can talk with qualified parenting coaches.

Our Bouncing Back programme gets primary school children in Wales talking about how they’re feeling. In an evaluation, 90% of participants felt that they knew how and when to ask for help after taking part. Seven out of ten said their confidence had increased, too.

We also have a growing number of local mental health services across the UK – and we won’t stop until all young people have the support they need to thrive. With your help, we could increase our services even further and reach more young people.


Help us be a vital lifeline for children, young people and families

Donate Now

I’ve always struggled with stress and anxiety, however Blues has helped me to come up with ways to combat my negative thoughts and feelings so that I feel more positive about myself.

Feedback from a young person on The Blues Programme

Keep up to date with Action for Children!

Sign up to our newsletter