Depression and anxiety have risen among teenage girls in England, with more than a third reporting symptoms of distress, although the rates are stable among teenage boys, according to a major survey of 14-year-olds carried out for the Department for Education.
Among the girls, 37% reported feeling unhappy, worthless or unable to concentrate, more than twice the percentage of boys reporting such feelings, a rise since a study in 2005, which was described by the researchers as “an important and significant trend”. The figure for the girls had risen by nearly four percentage points since 2005, while the figure for boys, 15%, had fallen slightly.
The rise was pronounced in young people living in single-parent households or with stepfamilies, and those with a long-standing illness or disability affecting their education. Poor sleeping patterns, including sleeping for less than the recommended amount, were reported among many of those reporting other problems, and will be followed up in later reports.
A spokesman for the Department for Education said the mental health of the young was a priority area.
“Children’s mental health is a priority for this government and we know that intervening early can have a lasting impact,” he said. “We are putting a record £1.4bn into transforming the dedicated mental health support available to young people across the country and are working to strengthen the links between schools and mental health services.
“We are also driving forward innovations to improve prevention and early support, by investing £1.5m on peer-support networks in schools so children feel empowered to help one another.”
There was some good news in the report, which found that the teenagers were more serious than their predecessors, less likely to be play truant, more convinced of the importance of hard work, and “markedly” less prone to risky behaviour including smoking, drinking and drug-taking. In 2005, 30% admitted to drinking alcohol, but this had fallen to 12%. Reported drug-taking was also down, and truancy had fallen from 21% to 11%. There was a sharp fall – from 23% in 2005 to 16% in 2014 – in teenagers reporting that their parents had kept them out of school for reasons other than illness.
The situation outlined in the report, based on in-depth interviews with thousands of teenagers in year 10 in England, was described by Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, as “a slow-growing epidemic”.
Wallace told The Times that her charity had been contacted by worried school heads. “There definitely does seem to be something happening – it’s a slow- growing epidemic,” she said. “Over the period covered by the report we have seen a very disturbing change in admissions to hospital for self-harm in under-16s that have gone up by 52%.”
The report found the problems were more marked among both girls and boys of parents educated to degree level, which the researchers said could be partly due to peer pressure and pushy parents. There had also been “a small but statistically significant” worsening in young people’s belief that they could influence their own destinies – more marked in households where at least one parent was out of work.
The researchers – who will continue to follow up the group of teenagers interviewed – said there appeared to be less stress, possibly because of lower expectations, among those from more disadvantaged social backgrounds.
“There may be some ways in which having lower social status may be associated with lower levels of expectation for school success and lower levels of associated pressure. Another possible explanation is that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may be more resilient in the face of [stress factors] associated with a more challenging economic and school environment.”
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