Children and young people
Mental health problems affect around one in six children. They include depression, anxiety and conduct disorder (a type of behavioural problem), and are often a direct response to what is happening in their lives.
*Last updated: 16 July 2021
Alarmingly, however, 75% of children and young people who experience a mental health problem aren’t getting the help they need.
Children’s emotional wellbeing is just as important as their physical health. Good mental health helps them develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.
Things that can help keep children and young people mentally well include:
- being in good physical health, eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise
- having time and freedom to play, indoors and outdoors
- being part of a family that gets along well most of the time
- going to a school that looks after the wellbeing of all its pupils
- taking part in local activities for young people.
Other factors are also important, including:
- feeling loved, trusted, understood, valued and safe
- being interested in life and having opportunities to enjoy themselves
- being hopeful and optimistic
- being able to learn and having opportunities to succeed
- accepting who they are and recognising what they are good at
- having a sense of belonging in their family, school and community
- feeling they have some control over their own life
- having the strength to cope when something is wrong (resilience) and the ability to solve problems.
Most children grow up mentally healthy, but surveys suggest that more children and young people have problems with their mental health today than 30 years ago.
What can affect children and young people’s mental health?
Traumatic events can trigger mental health problems for children and young people who are already vulnerable.
Changes often act as triggers: moving home or school or the birth of a new sibling, for example. Some children who start school feel excited about making new friends and doing new activities, but there may also be some who feel anxious about entering a new environment.
Teenagers often experience emotional turmoil as their minds and bodies develop. An important part of growing up is working out and accepting who you are. Some young people find it hard to make this transition to adulthood and may experiment with alcohol, drugs or other substances that can affect mental health.
Are some children and young people more likely to experience mental health problems?
Certain risk factors can make some children and young people more likely to experience mental health problems than others. However, experiencing them doesn’t mean a child will definitely – or even probably – go on to have mental health problems.
These factors include:
- having a long-term physical illness
- a parent who has had mental health problems, problems with alcohol or has been in trouble with the law
- the death of someone close to them
- parents who separate or divorce
- experiencing severe bullying or physical or sexual abuse
- poverty or homelessness
- experiencing discrimination
- caring for a relative, taking on adult responsibilities
- having long-lasting difficulties at school.
What mental health problems commonly occur in children?
- Depression affects more children and young people today than in the last few decades. Teenagers are more likely to experience depression than young children.
- Self-harm is a very common problem among young people. Some people find it helps them manage intense emotional pain if they harm themselves through cutting or burning, for example.
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) can cause young people to become extremely worried. Very young children or children starting or moving school may have separation anxiety.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can follow physical or sexual abuse, witnessing something extremely frightening or traumatising, being the victim of violence or severe bullying or surviving a disaster.
- Children who are consistently overactive, impulsive and have difficulty paying attention may have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Eating disorders usually start in the teenage years and are more common in girls than boys. The number of young people who develop an eating disorder is small, but eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can have serious consequences for their physical health and development.
I’m a young person – what help is available?
If you’re a young person and you’re worried about your mental health, there is help available. You may want to try the following things.
- Talk to someone about how you feel, such as a parent, friend or adult you trust. Our page on friendship has ideas on opening up to a friend.
- Visit your GP. They can answer any questions you have about how you’re feeling, talk you through different support options, and refer you to other services who could give you more help.
- Get in touch with services and organisations that help people with mental health problems. Visit our getting help page, or look at ‘organisations that can help’ below for support that is specifically for young people.
You could text the Young Minds Crisis Messenger if you need support. A trained volunteer will text with you to help you think through your feelings and signpost you to other support.
Mind has lots of information for young people about understanding your feelings, how to get help and support, what happens when you visit your GP, looking after yourself and more.
I’m worried about my child – what can I do?
One of the most important ways parents or guardians can help is by listening to their children and taking their feelings seriously. They may want a hug, they may want you to help them change something or they may want practical help.
Children and young people’s negative feelings usually pass. However, it’s a good idea to get help if your child is distressed for a long time, if their negative feelings are stopping them from getting on with their lives, if their distress is disrupting family life or if they are repeatedly behaving in ways you wouldn’t expect at their age.
If your child is having problems at school, a teacher, school nurse, school counsellor or educational psychologist may be able to help. Otherwise, go to your GP or speak to a health visitor. They can refer a child to further help if necessary. Different professionals often work together in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
Most mental health support for children and young people is provided free by the NHS, your child’s school or your local council’s social services department.
Young Minds has a parents’ helpline you can call if you’re worried about a child up to the age of 25. They provide advice, emotional support and signposting to other services.
What treatment might young people be offered?
Treatment for children and young people often involves talking through the problem in order to work out the best way to tackle it. For young children, this may be done through play. They may be referred to a specialist such as a counsellor who is trained to help them explore their feelings and behaviour.
There is a lot of evidence that talking therapies can be effective for children and young people, but medication may also help in some cases. Children need to be assessed by a specialist before they are prescribed any medication.
The professionals supporting a child will keep information about them and their family confidential. Young people can seek help on their own, either by ringing a helpline or by approaching a professional directly, but will usually need a parent’s consent for medical care if they’re under 16.
Young people have a right to privacy if they don’t want to talk to their family about their conversations with professionals.
Organisations that can help
Barnardo's protects and supports the UK’s most vulnerable children. They provide a range of services to help and support children, young people, parents and carers.
CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) runs a free, confidential helpline and webchat service offering help and advice to anyone feeling down or in need of support.
ChildLine is a free, confidential service where children can talk about any issue they’re going through. You can call their helpline or use their webchat to speak to a trained counsellor.
The Children’s Society supports children going through serious life challenges. They run services and campaigns to make children’s lives better.
Contact offer advice and support to families with disabled children. If you’re a parent caring for a disabled child, you can arrange to speak to an adviser for practical and emotional support.
Family Lives offers information and support on all aspects of family life, including the stages of child development, issues with schools, parenting support, bullying and mental health concerns.
Papyrus supports people under 35 who have thoughts of suicide and others who are concerned about them. You can contact them by phone, text or email.
Penumbra supports adults and young people in Scotland with mental health problems. They offer services that provide practical and emotional support.
YoungMinds offers information and support to young people about their mental health, and helps adults to support the young people in their lives. If you’re a parent worried about a child’s mental health, you can call their helpline.