In October, NHS Digital – in collaboration with NatCen, the Office for National Statistics, University of Cambridge and University of Exeter – published the latest survey in a series which provides England’s Official Statistics on trends in child mental health.
The first aim of the survey was to look at the mental health of children and young people in England in July 2020 and examine any changes since the last survey in 2017. The second aim was to describe the experiences of family life, education and services, and worries and anxieties during the COVID-19 pandemic for children and young people.
We found that one in six (16%) 5 to 16 year olds were identified as having a probable mental disorder. This had increased significantly since 2017, when one in nine (11%) children aged 5 to 16 were identified as having a probable mental disorder.
Is this increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
We can’t be certain about the answer to that question. However, we do know that the recent COVID-19 pandemic has meant that children and young people have experienced major changes in their lives.
Between March and July, the closure of schools and many workplaces meant many families spent more time together in close proximity in the home. Restrictions on face to face contact affected access to education, leisure and health services.
By asking children and young people how lockdown had affected their life, this survey provides a unique insight into how these changes have impacted their mental health.
Impact of lockdown on young people’s lives
Our research found four in ten 11 to 22 year olds felt lockdown had made their life worse (either a little or much worse), whilst three in ten reported no change, and almost three in ten reported the lockdown had made their life better.
When we compared those identified with a probable mental disorder with those unlikely to have a disorder, we found that more than half of 11 to 22 year olds with a probable mental disorder said that life was worse under lockdown (54% of 11 to 16 year olds and 59% of 17 to 22 year olds). This was much higher than those unlikely to have a mental disorder (39% and 37% respectively).
Proportion saying lockdown had made their life worse, by age and likelihood of mental disorder
Anxieties about COVID-19
Our survey included a newly-developed Pandemic Anxiety Scale (PAS) – this was a brief 7-item measure that captures pandemic-related anxiety. The PAS produces two scores: ‘disease anxiety’, related to worries about catching or transmitting COVID-19, and ‘consequence anxiety’, related to concerns about its impact (e.g. on jobs, missing school).
Overall, the mean disease anxiety score was 6.7 and mean consequence anxiety score was 5.7 for all 11 to 22 year olds. This shows that children and young people are feeling more anxious about COVID-19 itself than about its consequences. This pattern was observed across both age groups (11 to 16 year olds and 17 to 22 year olds) and for both boys and girls.
We know from other studies that both sleep problems and loneliness are risk factors for having a mental disorder.
Our research found that 29% of all children and young people said they had had sleep problems in the past seven days. Sleep problems were more common among children and young people with a probable mental disorder than those unlikely to have a mental disorder. Among 11 to 16 year olds with a probable mental disorder, 51% reported sleep problems compared with 19% of those unlikely to have a mental disorder. This pattern was also evident among 5 to 10 year olds (53% and 11% respectively), and 17 to 22 year olds (70% and 29% respectively).
Proportion reporting sleep problems in the past seven days, by age and likelihood of mental disorder
We also found that one in ten (10%) of 11 to 22 year olds, at the time of the survey, reported often or always feeling lonely, and four in ten (43%) reported hardly or never feeling lonely. However, as with sleep problems, children and young people with a probable mental disorder were more likely to report always or often feeling lonely than those unlikely to have a disorder, as shown in the below.
Proportion reporting feeling lonely often or all the time, by age and likelihood of mental disorder
There are plenty more findings in the report to digest and examine. This research has uncovered some of the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on children and young people so far. However, there is a long way to go yet before we will see all the continued impacts the pandemic may have.
Further information about the Mental Health of Children and Young People survey and the latest findings is available here.