Teenagers' mental health under severe pressure as pandemic continues - new research

New research finds that teenagers' mental health is under severe pressure as the pandemic continues.

Nationally representative data based on a survey of 2,395 British teenagers aged 13 - 19:

  • 27 per cent of British teenagers surveyed said they felt ‘nervous, anxious or on edge’ most or nearly all the days of the previous fortnight.
  • 27 per cent of British teenagers surveyed said they felt ‘easily annoyed or irritable’ most or nearly all the days of the previous fortnight.
  • 26 per cent of British teenagers surveyed said they had had trouble concentrating on things like schoolwork, reading and watching TV, most or nearly all the days of the previous fortnight.
  • 32 per cent of British teenagers surveyed said they had trouble with sleep most or nearly all the days of the previous fortnight.
  • Teenagers whose parents are unemployed are dramatically more likely to report these experiences, which are symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Teenagers whose parents are in ‘social grades’ C2DE are also significantly more likely to report having symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Across all teenagers surveyed, their rating of their own mental health has worsened, over the course of the pandemic.

The mental health of 13-19 year-olds in Britain is under severe pressure across a range of indicators, according to new research by the Mental Health Foundation and Swansea University.

The study is one of the few that repeatedly asks younger teenagers across Britain about their experiences during the pandemic.

More than a quarter of teenagers (27 per cent) surveyed said they had felt ‘nervous, anxious or on edge’ on most or nearly all the days of the previous fortnight.

The same proportion said they had felt ‘easily annoyed or irritable’ on most or nearly all the days of the previous fortnight, while almost a third (32 per cent) had had trouble with sleep.

More than a quarter (26 per cent) had had trouble concentrating over the same period, on things like schoolwork, reading and watching TV.

These experiences can all be symptoms of anxiety and depression, although having them does not amount to a diagnosis.

Teenagers' rating of their own mental health has also worsened during the pandemic. When surveyed in late summer, 10 per cent said their mental health had been 'poor' before lockdown. When questioned again in late November, 16 per cent described their mental health as 'poor'.

Teenagers with unemployed parents appear to be at especially high risk of having symptoms of anxiety and depression, compared with those whose parents work full-time. For instance, they are more than twice as likely to feel ‘afraid, as if something awful might happen’ and ‘down, depressed, irritable or hopeless’.

Those whose parents are in social grades ‘C2DE’ (which include manual workers and people who are unemployed or living on benefits) also appear to be at significantly greater risk than their peers with ‘ABC1’ parents (see Notes to Editors for more detail).

However, across all teenagers, many reported having such experiences.

All findings are from an ongoing study of teenagers’ experiences of the pandemic, being done by the Mental Health Foundation in partnership with Swansea University, the charity MQ Mental Health Research and Leaders Unlocked, which helps young people have a stronger voice on issues that affect their lives.

One 17-year-old, who is involved with Leaders Unlocked, said: "There’s so much pressure because it’s hard for me to provide for everyone I love, through work, support and basic financial help that I can no longer provide them. I’m also very scared of losing myself and becoming incapable - I don’t want to be crushed by the dark feeling that’s been eating lots of people up."

The latest data were gathered between 17th – 1st December 2020, among 2,395 British teenagers aged 13-19.

Catherine Seymour, Head of Research at the Mental Health Foundation, said: “These findings are a warning about how painful many young people’s lives have become during the pandemic.

“We gathered the findings before the recent school closures - and fear that when we next ask teenagers about their experiences, they will be feeling even worse.

“Young people have told us that they often feel afraid, sad or bad about themselves – and so it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a rise in the number who say their own mental health is ‘poor’.

“Our concern is that the longer the pandemic goes on, the more embedded these problems can become.

“Furthermore, our evidence indicates that teenagers from less advantaged homes are having the hardest emotional struggle of all. They are much more likely to report frequent symptoms of anxiety and depression than their peers with parents in jobs that are typically better-paid.

“It may be that those in poorer households are more likely to lack enough space and internet access, to help with schoolwork and communication with their friends. They may also be affected by their parents’ financial worries and stress.

“This is how a family’s economic disadvantage can affect young people’s mental health, potentially for many years.”

Professor Ann John, Professor of Public Health and Psychiatry at Swansea University, said: “The pandemic has exposed the deep inequalities in our society. Many studies have shown the greater impact and widening gaps in mental health difficulties, educational attainment and more severe financial consequences for the young and those in living in poverty.

“It is therefore no surprise that our study has uncovered worse mental health outcomes for teenagers in the poorest households.

“The Government needs to deliver targeted support to those most at risk of developing a mental health problem in the context of their economic circumstances. This is vital now - and to our recovery as a nation going forward.

“More than this, the Government must address the factors that can contribute towards young people having problems with their mental health in the first place. This means delivering an equitable welfare system, guaranteeing housing safety and security and ensuring teenagers have the basics to live comfortably through the pandemic and beyond - including food and warmth.

“Ultimately, the task is to lift young people out of the impoverished conditions that underlie so much distress.”

Folade Lawan, Project Co-ordinator of the Young Leaders initiative between the Mental Health Foundation and of Leaders Unlocked, said: “These findings come as no surprise. Across our work with young people, we are seeing increased levels of stress due to financial strain - both on the young person and those around them.

“We also observe that many young people are finding it difficult to maintain the motivation to do schoolwork. This is exacerbated by a loss of social networks and increased social isolation.”

Lea Milligan, Chief Executive of MQ Mental Health Research, said: “Since the start of the pandemic we have seen drastic changes in mental health. For some groups, there have been improvements whilst others, including young people, are seeing theirs decline. How can we support the most vulnerable to ensure they can recover in a post-pandemic world? We need more research to find this answer.”

The data reported here have been weighted to be representative of all British teenagers and were gathered over two periods. The first was between 24th August-8th September and the second was between 17th November and 1st December, as part of an ongoing study of teenagers’ experiences of the pandemic by the Mental Health Foundation in partnership with Swansea University, MQ Mental Health Research and Leaders Unlocked.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2,395 teenagers aged 13-19 years. Fieldwork was undertaken between 17th November - 1st December 2020.  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

To arrange an interview with one of the experts involved in this study, contact Rachel Baird: [email protected] or call 07749 159 029. 

ABC1 and C2DE are used in the ‘social grade’ system of classifying people according to their jobs, with ABC1 referring to non-manual workers and C2DE referring to manual workers and people who are unemployed or live on benefits including the state pension.

More detailed examples of how teenagers’ experiences vary according to their parents’ ‘social grade’ and employment:

Experience

 

 

Teenagers with parents in social grades ABC1

(sample size 1,162)

 

% teenagers surveyed who felt this way ‘more than half the days’ or ‘nearly every day’ of previous fortnight

Teenagers with parents in social grades C2DE

(sample size 1,233)

 

% teenagers surveyed who felt this way ‘more than half the days’ or ‘nearly every day’ of previous fortnight

Teenagers whose parents work full-time

(sample size 935)

 

% teenagers surveyed who felt this way ‘more than half the days’ or ‘nearly every day’ of previous fortnight

Teenagers whose parents are unemployed

(sample size 140)

 

% teenagers surveyed who felt this way ‘more than half the days’ or ‘nearly every day’ of previous fortnight

Difficulty concentrating

 

19 per cent

 

 

33 per cent

 

19 per cent

 

33 per cent

Feeling nervous, anxious or on edge

 

21 per cent

 

 

33 per cent

 

19 per cent

 

42 per cent

 

Trouble with sleep

 

25 per cent

 

 

39 per cent

 

24 per cent

 

40 per cent

Feeling easily annoyed or irritable

 

22 per cent

 

 

32 per cent

 

23 per cent

 

39 per cent

Feeling afraid, as if something awful might happen

 

14 per cent

 

22 per cent

 

13 per cent

 

30 per cent

Feeling down, depressed, irritable or hopeless

 

17 per cent

 

 

28 per cent

 

16 per cent

 

34 per cent

Feeling bad about yourself or that you’re a failure or have let yourself or your family down

 

18 per cent

 

31 per cent

 

16 per cent

 

36 per cent

A small number of young people surveyed chose not to answer the questions about symptoms of anxiety and depression. That number varied between questions, up to a maximum of 33 people declining to answer, out of the total of 2,395 who were surveyed.

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.

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.

Leaders Unlocked is an organisation that enables young people and underrepresented groups to have a stronger voice on the issues that affect their lives. In education, health, policing, justice and elsewhere, it helps organisations to involve the people who matter and to shape decision-making for the better.