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24 Nov 2023

One in five children and young people struggle with their mental health

New data from NHS England shows one in five children and young people in England, aged eight to 25, had a probable mental disorder in 2023.

In addition, more than one in 10 of 17 to 19-year-olds who took part in a major new survey this year had an eating disorder, a rise from less than 1% of that age group six years ago. Among those aged 11 to 16, rates of eating disorders were four times higher in girls than boys.

Eating disorders

The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2023 report, published by NHS England this week, found that overall a fifth (20.3%) of eight to 16-year-olds had a probable mental disorder in 2023. This rose to almost a quarter (23.3%) among 17 to 19-year-olds, while it was 21.7% among 20 to 25-year-olds.

Following a rise in rates of probable mental disorders between 2017 and 2020, prevalence continued at similar levels in all age groups between 2022 and 2023.

Participants were questioned about eating disorders for the first time since the original 2017 survey. In 2023, 12.5% of 17 to 19-year-olds had an eating disorder, an increase from 0.8% in 2017. Between 2017 and 2023, rates rose both in young women (from 1.6% to 20.8%) and young men (from 0.0% to 5.1%) in this age group.

This year’s survey found 5.9% of 20 to 25-year-olds had an eating disorder, while eating disorders were identified in 2.6% of 11 to 16-year-olds, compared with 0.5% in 2017 – with rates in 2023 four times higher in girls (4.3%) than boys (1.0%).

Destructive

It is alarming that the numbers of children and young people struggling with their mental health remains high and the figures for those suffering from eating disorders continue to rise.

Eating disorders are among the most destructive of psychiatric conditions. Once the distorted patterns of eating become entrenched, it can become harder and harder to recover. It is crucial that parents, carers and professionals are in a position to identify problems early and seek help.

The numbers of children presenting with issues including eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal thoughts were already on the increase before the pandemic struck, and likely worsened due to the prolonged isolation children experienced during lockdowns.

These figures expose the growing need for experienced, well-trained staff who are available in every school to help identify those requiring specialist help.

NHS Mental Health Director Claire Murdoch said the report shows the continued unprecedented pressures faced by young people and reflects the increased demand for NHS children’s mental health services.

Early intervention

Mental Health Support Teams offer support in schools and colleges, including for common mental wellbeing issues such as anxiety and low mood. Early intervention is critical for children at risk, as half of all mental disorders begin before the age of 14, and three-quarters by the mid-twenties.

Without this extra support, in both schools and specialist services, we risk raising expectations amongst desperate families and children only for them to be dashed by long waiting times and inadequate interventions.

Information for the report was collected during February to April this year and covered 2,370 children and young people aged eight to 25 years old in England.

NHS England said responses from parents, children and young people were used to estimate whether it was “unlikely”, “possible” or “probable” that a child might have a mental disorder.

The survey, carried out by the Office for National Statistics, the National Centre for Social Research and the universities of Cambridge and Exeter, is described by NHS England as the country’s best data source for trends in children and young people’s mental health and how these have changed since 2017.

Further reading:

One in five children and young people had a probable mental disorder in 2023

NHS – Eating disorders


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