That’s the alarming headline finding of a recent survey of 9,000 young people conducted by NHS digital in England. The report shows worrying increases for younger children too, with a 10% rise in mental health issues for 5 to 15 year olds since this NHS review was last done in 2004. However, it is the 23.9% figure for mental illness among young women which is most striking and concerning.
Is social media to blame?
It’s difficult to say. It clearly has a role, but it’s not clear if it is a ‘cause’. The NHS review found that children with mental health problems were more likely to use social media, compare themselves to others on social media and to report that their mood was affected by the number of ‘likes’ they got. Cyber bullying was also flagged as a problem. It may be that the negative effects of social media, such as bullying or body image pressures, might affect girls and young women disproportionately.
This all suggests that social media can be a ‘negative’ in terms of young people’s mental health. But having said this, there is no evidence in this report to show social media is ‘to blame’ – it may be that young people with mental health issues are more likely to find themselves using social media, rather than social media causing those issues in the first place. We just don’t know.
The general picture of increasing demand and lack of capacity for children’s mental health services is a worrying one. The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has warned of the huge gap in provision of NHS mental health support for young people, and the slow progress being made towards better community provision. Her analysis of NHS figures from 2017/18 show that:
About 7 out of 10 children referred to the NHS were either NOT accepted for treatment or still waiting after a year.
Of the 3 in 10 who were accepted, the average wait to be seen was 2 months.
The Commissioner concludes that NHS mental health services for children are underfunded to the tune of £1.7bn when compared to adult provision. It’s generally accepted that early intervention leads to the best outcome. The consequences of delay can be serious – of those in their late teens with mental health problems, almost half had self-harmed or even attempted suicide.
Given the clear shortfall in current NHS provision, there are other support options. In many cases counselling or other support for young people can be accessed through schools, universities and colleges. There is also support available in the charitable sector, although this is often in high demand. Alternatively, private counselling and psychotherapy can provide quick access to effective support.