Signs of hope for British teenagers' mental health but loneliness and anxiety remain high: New findings from long-term study

The easing of lockdown seems to have helped many British teenagers’ mental health but loneliness and anxiety remain extremely common, according to new research by the Mental Health Foundation and Swansea University. 

The study, launched in summer 2020, is one of the few that repeatedly asks younger teenagers about their experiences of the pandemic.

The latest results were gathered from 2,349 British teenagers (aged 13-19), in an online survey by YouGov between 24th May and 15th June 2021.

“We’re seeing hopeful signs of young people’s resilience in our latest data but also evidence that many teenagers have a mental health ‘hangover’ from the pandemic,” said Catherine Seymour, Head of Research at the Mental Health Foundation. 

“We gathered our new results in late May and June, when young people were back in school, restrictions were lifting and vaccines being rolled out.

“We found that fewer teenagers said their mental health is ‘poor’, compared to when we last surveyed them in March, while pessimism about the future has become less common and fewer teenagers are reporting experiences associated with depression,” she added.

The proportion of teenagers who say their own mental health is ‘poor’ has fallen from 18 per cent of those surveyed in March to 14 per cent of those questioned in the new survey.

Pessimism is also becoming less common, although it is widespread. When the study  previously asked teenagers about the future for people their age, 65 per cent said it would be ‘a lot’ or ‘a little’ worse. This has fallen to 57 per cent of teenagers questioned in the latest survey. 

Further results suggest that fewer teenagers are having experiences associated with depression, including problems with sleeping, appetite, concentrating and feeling bad about themselves.

Ms Seymour added: “While all this is encouraging, our results also show that loneliness is widespread, despite the unlocking, while huge numbers remain anxious about the pandemic. Loneliness is especially significant, because it suggests a lack of the nourishing relationships that help teenagers to cope with difficult times. Loneliness leaves them more vulnerable.”

Loneliness appears to be as common as it was in March 2021, according to the latest results, with 64 per cent of teenagers surveyed saying they ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ have no-one to talk to and 66 per cent saying they ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ feel alone. 

Anxiety also remains common. Forty-three per cent of those surveyed said they are ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ worried about another lockdown, 45 per cent are ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ worried about their family or friends being ill with Covid and 32 per cent ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ worried about someone close to them dying. Almost one-in-four (39 per cent) said they are ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ worried about the pandemic affecting their own mental health. 

Anxiety and other distress is especially common among some groups, including females, teenagers whose parents are classed as ‘C2DE’, full-time students, people with long-term health conditions and disabilities and 18-19 year-olds. 

Professor Ann John of Swansea University said: ‘The big influences on teenagers’ mental health are living in economic adversity and having pre-existing mental and physical health conditions and disabilities. And, specifically, that time in late teens of rapid social and emotional changes and life transitions. It is teenagers in these groups who appear to be less likely to bounce back from the effects of the pandemic. 

 

‘Looking forward, we really need to ensure that these inequalities are not widened and that the pandemic does not have knock-on, long-lasting effects on their futures. To do this, we need policies and practical initiatives that span government departments and go beyond mental health services - although these are vital and chronically underfunded - to include accessible and accessed employment, training and education opportunities, financial safety nets for families and affordable housing.’  

The study is supported by MQ Mental Health Research, which recently led calls for the Government to do more to support the mental health of children and young people during the pandemic. Lea Milligan, the charity’s Chief Executive, said: “The historic underfunding of mental health services, resources and research for young people has been brought into sharp focus by the pandemic. Now that we are, I hope, starting to emerge from the shadow of COVID-19, we can focus on levelling up and supporting the most vulnerable to recover, through a holistic approach to mental health. 

“The improvements to wellbeing that young people are self-reporting through this survey are a welcome first step to recovery. If we are to truly ensure the future health of the COVID generation, then much more needs to be done.”

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,349 teenagers aged 13-19 years. Fieldwork was undertaken between 24th May - 15th June 2021.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB Teenagers aged 13-19 years.

Notes to Editors

The Mental Health Foundation and Swansea University, with funding from MQ, are leading this longitudinal study of adolescents (people aged 13-19) across Great Britain. It is part of a wider study of how the pandemic is affecting people’s mental health in the UK, by the Mental Health Foundation and the University of Cambridge, Swansea University, Strathclyde University, Queen’s University Belfast and De Montfort University Leicester. 

The study is using repeated cross-sectional surveys, via YouGov. Survey participants are different on each sampling occasion but taken from the same pool and always representative of the GB population. The survey covers approximately 20 topics, including the pandemic’s impact on mental health and the key drivers of risk. Ethical approval has been obtained from Swansea University’s Research Ethics Committee.

The Mental Health Foundation: Our vision is of good mental health for all. The Mental Health Foundation works to prevent mental health problems. We will drive change towards a mentally healthy society for all, and support communities, families and individuals to lead mentally healthy lives with a particular focus on those at greatest risk. The Foundation is the home of Mental Health Awareness Week and has developed a dedicated Covid19 resources hub that includes advice aimed at young people. It has also published recommendations about what government policies will help people in the UK to recover from the pandemic. The charity is to invest at least £1 million in programmes targeting some of the groups who have been hardest hit by the pandemic – including people of colour, single parents and those with long-term health conditions.

MQ Mental Health Research is the biggest charity that exclusively funds research into mental health conditions, their causes and treatments. The Adolescent Data Platform facilitated by MQ aims to improve the speed and effectiveness of research into young people's mental health. It brings together data from different sources and is the biggest platform of its kind. It is helping to connect researchers from different fields, reduce the cost and time involved in accessing information and address the significant gap in research about young people's mental health.