Mental health problems among young people are growing – and girls are particularly at risk

An analysis of country-wide data found that young women, and those living in socioeconomically deprived areas, are experiencing high rates of mental illness

27th July 2022 about a 3 minute read
"High-quality data and analysis will play a crucial role in targeting preventative interventions, planning services and improving children and young people’s mental health.” Improving children and young people’s mental health services, report from Health Foundation's Networked Data Lab

The number of children and young people with mental health problems is growing, but mental health services aren’t keeping up, according to a new report.

The report from the Health Foundation’s Networked Data Lab (NDL), Improving children and young people’s mental health services, analyses local, linked data sources to explore trends in mental health presentations across primary, specialist and acute services. Existing national data sets on who is using mental heath services are not publicly available, it says, and are not detailed enough to capture variation by characteristics such as sex and age. “Too little is known about who receives support and who might be missing out,” it argues.

Using the local data, it identifies three areas for further investigation: the rapid growth of prescribing and use of general practice, the mental health of young women, and marked socioeconomic inequalities.

Local NDL teams found that the use of GPs and medication for mental health problems is growing in their areas. Citing North West London as an example, the report says that the monthly number of those aged 0–25 years with a mental-health related prescription or GP event (diagnosis, observation or referral) grew threefold between 2015 and 2021.

Similarly, In Grampian in Scotland, the proportion of those aged 0–24 years with mental health-related prescriptions increased from 4.7% in 2012 to 6.4% in 2019.

About 25% of older adolescent girls and young women aged 17-22 have a “probable mental health disorder,” the report says, which is “a higher share than for any other group of children and young people.”

In Grampian, young women aged 19-24 had the highest level of antidepressant prescribing (17.9% in 2019). In Leeds, Liverpool and Wirral, girls aged 15-17 had the greatest number of contacts with specialist mental health services, and were also the group who most frequently presented with mental health crises to acute services in Wales.

The report also depicts a “stark contrast” between the 20% most socioeconomically deprived areas and the 20% least deprived. In Leeds, for example, crisis referrals for children and young people in touch with services were 60% higher in the most deprived areas, while in Grampian, there were twice as many prescriptions and 1.7 times as many referrals, and there were “close to twice as many crisis presentations to acute services in Wales.”

Quality of data collection must be improved

To inform national policy decisions and local service planning and delivery, the report says, the quality of data collection, analysis and the linkage of datasets across services and sectors “need to be improved.” It also argues for “improvements in in data quality for specialist services, closing of data gaps along the emergency crisis care pathway, and better linkage of data to understand experiences across care pathways.”

The report recognises that governments in all three countries “have begun to recognise the scale of the challenge facing children and young people’s mental health. High-quality data and analysis will play a crucial role in targeting preventative interventions, planning services and improving children and young people’s mental health.”

It also welcomes the reorganisation of local services to integrate health and social care: “In England, the development of integrated care system (ICS) intelligence platforms – with fully linked, longitudinal datasets across primary, secondary, mental health, social and community care – will be a major step forward.”

FCC Insight

The report highlights the shocking rise in mental health problems among children and young people, and the current lack of capacity in mental health services to tackle those problems adequately. The big increase in mental health problems among young women, and the scale of the disparity between poorer and wealthier areas, are additional causes for concern. The Networked Data Lab (NDL) is right to call for better collection of data and, in particular, the use of integrated data sets. It is only by understanding which regions and demographic groups are most in need of support that government can plan mental health provision effectively.