State of a generation: Preventing mental health problems in children and young people

As part of the Mental Health Foundation’s 70th anniversary, we have commissioned three reports, each looking at a different stage in life and the key things that both challenge and support mental health at these stages.

This is the first of these three reports, focused on children and young people. It is intended both as a review of the recent evidence, and as a guide to anyone wishing to gain a rapid understanding of a preventative approach to mental health.

Mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, can happen at any age. However, childhood and young adulthood represents a particularly important time for development and mental health. By understanding the things that can challenge good mental health, as well as the things that can protect and promote it, we can introduce policies and services that support children and young people to reach their full potential, preventing mental health difficulties from progressing to the point where it becomes difficult to cope.

Children and young people’s early life experiences, the areas they live in, the process of navigating and exploring their identity, and the pressures they experience as they leave school and enter the workplace can all be issues posing risks to good mental health. By contrast, having supportive families, friends and communities; the skills to understand, talk about and manage challenging feelings; adults to turn to that understand how they feel; and accessible and effective support if problems start to become overwhelming are key things that can promote and protect good mental health from childhood into young adulthood and beyond.

Over 1 in 5 young adults (21%) say that the main place where they live has a negative effect on their mental health.

Based on the research and the suggestions of our Youth Advisory Panel, to support good mental health and prevent the development of mental health problems, we should:

  1. Provide resources to parents and caregivers (parenting programmes, education, employment and housing resources) that help them to be consistent sources of support for their children.
  2. Ensure that as part of their education, children are equipped with the skills they need to understand, talk about and manage challenging feelings.
  3. Embed the teaching of skills that support good mental health into the curriculum and into youth work and other young-person focused organisations. 
  4. Ensure that effective early support is available for young people’s mental health that considers young people’s views on what makes that support acceptable and accessible.
  5. Enable community leaders to bridge the gap between communities and local government and make sure people have a choice and a voice in deciding what their area needs to support good mental health.

These factors become even more urgent when we consider the findings of an online survey (of 2,522 UK young adults aged 16-25) we conducted at the Mental Health Foundation with YouGov in August of 2019, which showed that over 1 in 5 young adults (21%) say that the main place where they live has a negative effect on their mental health, only 54% of young adults feel they are able to speak about their emotions with others, a quarter of young adults say they “often” feel they lack companionship (25%), and just under 1 in 7 young adults (14%) say they do not feel they have a trusted adult to go to for advice and support if they are experiencing a problem (e.g. financial, mental health etc.).

Just under 1 in 7 young adults (14%) say they do not feel they have a trusted adult to go to for advice and support if they are experiencing a problem.

Read the full report