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New report from NHS England shows increase in children experiencing probable mental health difficulties

According to an NHS England report published today, 1 in 5 children and young people aged 8-25 years now have a probable mental health condition – around 5 children in every classroom.

The new data reveals that the proportion of children who are experiencing mental health difficulties has continued to increase since 2017 – from 1 in 9 children in 2017, to 1 in 6 in 2020, and now 1 in 5.

A diagram looking at how the mental health of children and young people in England has changed since 2017. The diagram is split into 3 sections. In 2017 (on the left of the diagram) shows that 3 children in every classroom had a diagnosable mental health condition. In 2020 (in the middle of the diagram) shows that 4 children in every classroom had a diagnosable mental health condition. In 2023 (on the right of the diagram) shows that 5 children in every classroom has a diagnosable mental health condition.

NHS England’s annual Mental Health of Children and Young People survey looks at the mental health of children and young people in England, and how this has changed since 2017.

The report draws on a sample of 2,307 children and young people aged between 8 and 25 years old. It additionally looks at household circumstances, and their experiences of education, employment and services, and of life in their families and communities.

In 2023, the most commonly reported sources of help and advice for parents of children aged 8-16 were:

  • education services (31.9%)
  • friends or family (19.2%)
  • health services (15.9%).

The least commonly reported source of help was text chat mental health support (0.7%).

The importance of mental health support in schools

This year’s data shows the important role that schools and education providers play in supporting children and young people’s mental health. 23.3% of 11-16 year olds reported having accessed support at school for their mental health and wellbeing – a slight decrease from 25% in 2022. Of those with a probable mental health condition:

  • 53.1% reported accessing mental health support in school (compared to 59.8% in 2022)
  • 81.3% reported they knew how to get support in school
  • 75.1% agreed they were able to access support if they needed to
  • 64.5% agreed with the statement ‘the support at my school is helpful’.

When it comes to school attendance, children with a probable mental health condition were 7 times more likely to have missed more than 15 days of school in the autumn term of 2022. Place2Be’s own research has found that one-to-one counselling can help to reduce odds of persistent school absence for children with mental health difficulties, showing the importance of having access to this support.

Financial worries and the cost of living

The cost-of-living crisis is continuing to take its toll on children, young people and families (as reported in 2022). In 2023, 44.5% of children aged 8 to 16 years had parents who reported being worried about money, and 12.4% of children agreed with the statement My family struggle more than other families to afford the things we need’. The survey also found that:

  • more than 1 in 4 children aged 8-16 (26.8%) with a probable mental condition had a parent who could not afford for their child to take part in activities outside school or college, compared with 1 in 10 (10.3%) of those unlikely to have a mental condition
  • children with a probable mental condition were more than twice as likely to live in a household that had fallen behind with rent, bills or mortgage than those unlikely to have a mental condition
  • 19.9% of children with a probable mental condition lived in a household where they could not afford to keep the home warm enough, compared with 7.6% of those unlikely to have a mental condition.

40% of the children Place2Be supports in school communities across the UK are eligible for Pupil Premium Funding and continue to be impacted by the rising cost of living. Last November, our Chief Executive spoke to Headteachers about the challenges they face in school, with Headteachers reporting increases in food bank usage and families’ concerns around energy costs and keeping homes warm during the winter months.

In response to the new data, Dr Niki Cooper, Place2Be’s Clinical Director, said: 

“1 in 5 children and young people now have a probable mental health condition, an increase from previous years – but that increase isn’t seen across the board. This new data shows increases in probable mental health conditions in 11-16 year olds, and also in 8-10 year old boys and 17-19 year old girls. Across the sector, we must now look at how we reach those groups most in need of support.  

“It’s positive to see that children and young people continue to feel able to access support in their schools, and that so many feel the support in their schools is helpful.

In my 22 years at Place2Be, I have seen a gradual destigmatisation of mental health, and children and young people becoming more able to identify and articulate their experience and distress. Schools are where children and young people are and where there needs to be accessible support for them and the wider school community.

“As schools continue to be a key source of mental health support and advice for children, young people and families, we must ensure that teachers and school staff are equipped with the tools and knowledge to support them. We believe that every UK school should have an embedded mental health service, providing support not only directly to pupils, but also helping all of the adults around children and young people to provide a safe, nurturing environment in which they can thrive. 

Schools cannot do all of this alone though, and the children’s mental health workforce needs to grow to meet rising demand. If indeed, 1 in 5 children do now have a probable mental health condition, then the sector needs more counsellors and therapists trained to work with children and young people – and we need this workforce to be diverse and representative of the population.

"Place2Be will continue to advocate for children and young people of all ages being able to access support when – and where – they need it. We must prioritise early intervention and prevention – and work across the health and education sectors to support children before their needs become more serious.” 

Read the full report from the NHS

Want to support children’s mental health?

Whether you’re a parent or carer, work with children and young people, or are considering a career in children’s mental health, there are lots of ways you can support children and young people’s wellbeing. We’ve shared some ideas below.

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