We’ve only just begun to understand the youth mental health crisis

We’ve only just begun to understand the youth mental health crisis
Date26th Apr 2024AuthorCharlie McCurdyCategoriesStudent Life

The transition to adulthood is a tumultuous time: leaving education, entering the labour market, living independently and managing personal finances all come with their stresses and strains. But poor mental health can blight young people’s experience of education, hamper their ability to flourish in the labour market, and ultimately hold back their long-term life chances. 

We’ve only just begun – the final report of a three-year research programme – explores answers to the critical question: what policy change is required for the growing number of young people with mental health problems to thrive in the world of work today?

Young people’s mental health has deteriorated 

When it comes to young people’s mental health, the numbers affected alone should be enough to make policy makers sit up and pay attention. In 2021-2022, more than one-in-three young people aged 18-24 reported symptoms that indicated they were experiencing a ‘common mental disorder’ (CMD) such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. This deterioration of mental health (rising from one-in-four in 2010) has been especially stark for young women. And there are concerningly high rates of psychological distress for young people who identify as LGBTQ+ or as non-binary. 

Whatever sits behind the youth mental health crisis, it is having real-world impacts

What explains the rise in mental health problems for young people? Firstly, this is not just a Covid-19 phenomenon (the rise pre-dates 2020), and there is considerable international evidence that suggests this is a longer-term trend. Others have argued that the rise of social media has stoked anxiety and enabled online bullying. One final explanation is that the (very welcome) decline in stigma attached to mental health problems mean that young people are more likely to report symptoms than in the past. 

Regardless of the cause, the rise in CMDs is having real-world impacts. For example, the number of 18-24-year-olds claiming and being awarded disability benefits on the grounds that they are not able to undertake ‘day to day’ activities has nearly trebled between 2016 and 2023. Likewise, the number of young people prescribed antidepressants has risen sharply since 2015-16 (up 31 per cent). 

Mental health problems can limit young people’s economic options too – particularly for those who don’t go to university

Mental health problems are personally difficult but they can also have big impacts on young people’s economic options. Unsurprisingly, young people with mental health problems are more likely to be out of work than their healthy peers: between 2018-2022, one-in-five (21 per cent) 18-24-year-olds with mental health problems were workless, compared to 13 per cent of those without. The number of young people workless due to ill-health has more than doubled over the past decade. The result is that people in their early 20s are now more likely to be economically inactive due to ill health than those in their 40s.

Much of the focus on youth mental health tends to centre around universities, but as we show in the report the economic consequences of poor mental health are far starker for those who don’t go to university. Our report finds that one-in-three young non-graduates with a CMD were workless, compared to 17 per cent of graduates with poor mental health. And shockingly four-in-five 18-24-year-olds who are workless due to ill health only have qualifications at GCSE-level or below, compared to one-third of all people in that age group.

Poor mental health can disrupt educational outcomes from an early age

It is hard not to conclude that mental health is blighting not only young people’s job prospects but also their education. Students with mental health problems are more likely to miss or not enjoy learning at school and college than their healthier peers. Small surprise, then, that children with mental health problems are three times more likely not to pass five GCSEs compared to their healthier classmates. Given this, the growing prevalence of mental health problems for children and young people is of upmost concern. 

What can be done? 

  1. First, our report calls for greater mental health support to be available for those in compulsory education, particularly colleges and sixth forms. Last year, less than half (44 per cent) of children and young people in secondary schools or post-16 settings had access to Mental Health Support Teams, with this figure especially low (31 per cent) for students in post-16 settings like colleges.
  2. Second, with qualifications providing such significant protection against the economic impact of CMDs, more should must be done to ensure fewer people leave compulsory education with very low qualification levels. The priority should be those students needing to resit GCSE level qualifications. Current resit success rates are woeful – last year, only one-quarter of those who resat GCSE English, and one-in-six of those who resat GCSE maths, achieved a pass.
  3. Finally, employers should learn from the success of tackling musculoskeletal problems in the 1990s and 2000s with a new focus on mental health in sectors where young people with CMDs, who report that the awareness of their manager makes a huge difference, are concentrated. With a third of young employees in the retail and hospitality sectors currently reporting mental health problems, better management practices and mental health training for employers in these sectors should be a priority going forwards.

Charlie McCurdy is an economist at the Resolution Foundation focusing on labour markets, living standards, and economic geography.

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