It’s confirmed: huge numbers of teenagers are depressed. The question is why…
This week, NCB published a new report with researchers at UCL which shows that 1 in 4 girls aged 14 is suffering from symptoms of depression. That’s 166,000 girls in the UK.
This new research is extremely robust, and is based on information from a representative group of more than 10,000 children born in 2000—01, who are taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study. It provides the strongest evidence yet that a huge number of young people are depressed.
Now that the scale of the crisis is beyond doubt, other questions come to mind:
Are today’s teens more likely to be depressed than in previous generations? In other words, is this a ‘millennial’ phenomenon?
Being a teenager has never been easy. Physical and psychological changes and the pressures of transitioning into the adult world have always made for a challenging time. But evidence does suggest that depression in this age group is increasing. Research with young people born in 1990-01, a decade before the millennials, which used the same robust measurement tool, found that 12% of girls and 5.5% of boys were depressed, compared with 24% of girls and 9% of boys born in 2000-01.
So, in a word, yes, it does seem that things have got worse.
Why are so many of today’s teens depressed?
The simple answer is that we don’t know for sure what is fuelling this rise in depression. But emerging evidence suggests a number of factors are at play:
Children today are facing huge pressures, especially as they reach adolescence: from anxiety about passing exams and about getting a job, to worries about body image, fuelled by a hyper-sexualised media environment.
Digital technology has transformed childhood, and alongside fantastic opportunities, it’s brought some serious threats, as the Education Select Committee has warned. Cyber-bullying means you no longer leave the bully behind at the school gates; they follow you home through your smartphone, tablet and laptop. And actions can have serious consequences. Pressing “send” on a text message could result in the whole school seeing naked images.
This new research also suggests that poorer children are more likely to be depressed, suggesting their mental health may be linked to factors like family income and housing.
Why are girls more likely to be depressed than boys?
At age 14, the research shows that many more girls are depressed than boys. But does that mean life is harder for girls? We know that girls may suffer more from anxiety over exams and body issues. But we must also remember that girls and boys develop at a different rate. Suicide is still the leading cause of death amongst young men, so it’s vital that we don’t jump to the conclusion that boys are somehow immune from these problems. Recent work by NCB highlighted that girls and boys experience mental health problems differently and that professionals must be sensitive to gender in identification and support.
What needs to be done?
This new research could not be more timely, with the Government due to announce plans for improving children’s mental health expected in the next few weeks. We have waited many months since the Prime Minister’s personal pledge, so the stakes are high. The Government must now act to create long-term transformational change.
This starts with specialist services with enough resource to meet children’s needs. New evidence shows that next year, the proportion of NHS funding spent on mental health will actually fall in half of local areas across England. Rising need and diminishing resource can only result in the crisis depending.
But on top of fully funded specialist services, we need to prepare children at home and at school to cope with the challenges of today’s childhood. A “whole school approach” to wellbeing, supported by NCB evidence and endorsed by the Education Select Committee, can help create a positive learning environment, where pupils’ emotional needs are nurtured alongside their academic development. New guidance on PSHE (Personal Social and Health Education) must support teachers and parents to communicate effectively with children, so they can share their feelings, build confidence and make good choices.
Finally, given the link between family income and teenage depression, the Government must consider the impact of factors such as cost of living, benefits and housing on young people's wellbeing.
With parliamentary time consumed by Brexit for the foreseeable future, this may be the only opportunity to do something tangible to help children and families. Ministers must make it count.