Diving Deep: Youth Mental Health in England and Beyond 

Olivia Miller
Picture by James Baldwin on Unsplash

A World Health Organisation (WHO) project involving researchers from the University’s Centre for Health Services Studies has painted a detailed picture of adolescents’ mental health in England and how it matches up against the larger Europe and Central Asia trend.

Released to mark global World Mental Health Day (10 October), the WHO Regional Office for Europe published the latest mental health data from the organisation’s Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, revealing a widespread and troubling trend across Europe and Central Asia: a pervasive downturn in the mental well-being of adolescent girls.

However, in England, the picture is nuanced: while the average mental well-being score for girls (expressed on a 0 to 100 low/high scale on the WHO-5 Mental well-being scale) decreases steadily across ages (52.3 at 11 years old, 43.6 at 13 years old and 39.3 at 15 years old) the picture for boys is more complex. The huge drop in mental well-being in boys between the ages of 11 years old and 13 years old (64.1 and 50.7 respectively) is then compensated by a slight recovery for 15 years old with an average score of 56.8. For both genders, differences in family affluence exacerbate the situation, with young people coming from the least affluent families scoring on average 10 points less on the WHO-5 well-being index score than their peers from the most affluent families.

Analysing data from the 2021/22 HBSC study, including insights from 280,000 young people across 44 countries, the complexities of mental health for the young population of England has become apparent. While overall, internationally 28% of 15-year-old girls report feelings of loneliness, in England the figure stands notably at 40% for girls of this age.

Moreover, 54% of girls of all ages from the least affluent families in England report ‘feeling low’ more than once a week against an overall international average of 37%.

In addition, 63% of girls across all ages from the least affluent families report ‘feeling nervous’ more than once a week well above an overall international prevalence of 43%, while only 19% of boys from the most affluent families report ‘feeling nervous’ more than once a week which is by contrast below the overall prevalence of 23%.

Kent’s Dr Sabina Hulbert and Professor Sally Kendall, lead researchers involved in the project, said: ‘These figures aren’t just numbers. The mental health of our young people needs to be seen in the context of their daily lives. They are a reflection of our society, our schools, our homes. For England, we need to understand this more deeply and take action more swiftly to ensure young people are better supported in their home and school environments, as well as more widely in their neighbourhoods and communities.

‘Among our young participants from England, we have the likes of 14-year-old Claudia who said, “I think the biggest health/wellbeing concern for young people is mental health difficulties. The pressures on young people starts really early – to do well at school, to look good, have the right things etcetera – sometimes it feels overwhelming”.’

The researchers also explained that, ‘Building on the broader European findings, the emphasis in England needs to be on early, integrated action, especially within school settings. Schools aren’t just educational hubs, they are central to our adolescents’ well-being. Collaborations between educational institutions and local authorities, community health services, the voluntary sector and national mental health initiatives are paramount for tangible change.

‘The findings, both regional and national, offer us a chance to not only compare but also to craft more tailored initiatives for our young people, right here in England. With the data we now have, it’s clear. Our approach must be multi-faceted, bridging schools, homes, communities, and policy.’

The full survey is available on the WHO site.

Participating countries and regions: Albania, Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Greenland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Republic of Moldova, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, England, Scotland, and Wales (UK).