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Why mental health is not your average problem

There have been numerous reports in recent months of a growing crisis in children and young people’s mental health. From increased suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm to reports of a complete lack of appropriate services, it’s said that young people are facing unprecedented social pressures and that society’s response has been inadequate. When it comes to trends over time in the mental wellbeing of young people, the evidence to date is conflicting. Meanwhile, new research by Andy Ross and colleagues at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL shows that the way we look at those trends may be masking an important story that could help those trying to tackle the problem to identify those most at risk of serious mental health problems.

There are few more high profile health issues at the moment than the mental health crisis among young people. The younger Royals may have helped raise public awareness about the need for more open conversations, but they agree the job is far from done. From a policy perspective, there are pledges of mental health legislation reform in the Queen’s Speech promises from Teresa May that her Government will “ensure that mental health is prioritised in the NHS in England”. But a recent report from NHS Providers says the government’s commitment to parity of esteem between mental and physical health services is being undermined by a failure to ensure funding increases reach the frontline.

Having a full and clear grasp of the scale of the problem and how young people’s mental wellbeing is changing over time will be key to any policies that may be developed to tackle it.

One of the main problems facing those trying to better understand the extent of the problem and whether the situation is getting better or worse, is that the evidence presented to date has been somewhat conflicting and, in some cases, doesn’t give the whole picture.

Some research has shown young people’s mental health deteriorating in the nineties and then stabilising and slightly improving in the early 2000s, whilst other work has evidenced a steady decline. Findings have also been different depending on whether it is teachers, parents or the young person themselves who are asked to report the symptoms.

Trends over time

We wanted to see whether we could add to and improve on the available evidence and show a more nuanced picture of mental health problems among young people by looking at trends over time, not just in respect of average levels of mental health, but also across the spectrum in levels of mental health. In simple terms, we were looking to see whether there were increases in the number of young people with unusually low levels of mental distress at the same time as increases in the numbers of those with very high levels of distress over an 18-year period.

Making use of information collected between 1991-2008 from more than 6,000 young people who took part in the British Household Panel Survey, we looked closely at their self-reported psychological distress. Once a year, young people between the ages of 16-24, were asked whether and how often, for example, they had experienced the loss of sleep through worry, a loss of confidence, felt constantly under strain, unhappy or depressed. They were also asked about positive symptoms such as their ability to concentrate and face up to their problems.

All this information was then combined to create an overall psychological distress score on a scale of 0-36, with high scores indicating high levels of psychological distress.

When we looked at the average psychological distress scores for young women in the study, we saw a small but significant increase over the 18-year period, indicating that, for this group, the situation worsened – in other words, their mental health deteriorated.

No increase was detected in the average scores for young men, which could be interpreted as a sign that levels of mental health among this group remained fairly stable.

At every time point, scores for women were worse than they were for men and this gap increased over time.

A story of polarisation

When we drilled deeper into the scores, however, the story changed a little. For young women there was a very clear and consistent increase in high and very high scores, following the overall increase in average scores mentioned above. The prevalence of those with high scores (17 and higher) increased from 12.8 per cent in 1991 to 18.8 per cent in 2008, and the prevalence of those with very high scores (20 and higher) from 6.6 per cent to 11.9 per cent. At the same time, however, there was also a small increase in the prevalence of those with scores much lower than average (5 and lower) from 10.6 per cent to 13.0 per cent.

It seems that when we move beyond looking only at average mental health scores over time, we identify two very different yet concurrent pictures of young women’s mental health. An increase in the number of young women presenting very poor levels of psychological distress, whilst at the same time an increase in young women with far better levels of mental health than average. In other words, over time, the mental wellbeing of young women appears to have become polarised.

Previously, our findings suggested that levels of mental health among young men had remained stable. However, when we look at both low and high scores over time, we find a very clear and consistent increase in low and very low scores, suggesting an overall improvement in levels of mental health among young men.

The prevalence of those with low and very low scores increased from 8.1 per cent to 15.6 per cent and from 2.1 per cent to 5.9 per cent respectively. At the other end of the scale however, whilst there was an increase in prevalence of those with high and very high scores, this increase was too small for us to consider it statistically significant[1]. Nevertheless, by considering trends at both ends of the spectrum we identified an improvement in young men’s mental health, which was otherwise ‘hidden’ when we only looked at average scores over time.

Although our study did not delve deeply into the backgrounds and circumstances of the young people with low and high scores, we did look at income levels to see if increasing levels of inequality might explain what we were seeing. It doesn’t appear to.

What we did find was evidence to support earlier research, which suggests that girls might feel increased pressure to achieve academically, which could contribute to increased levels of psychological distress.

Doing it for themselves

We are yet to explore causes for these trends, however one area that remains significantly under researched is the idea that we are becoming a more individualistic society, in which there are increased expectations placed on young people and an emphasis on them “doing it for themselves”. This includes increased pressure to take responsibility not just for one’s successes, but also for one’s failures, previously thought of as misfortunes, such as unemployment, illness and addiction. It is easy to imagine how the personalising of one’s failings could contribute to a young person’s poor mental health, or how they might develop a fear of failure even.

On the other hand, taking more responsibility for their own destiny could be empowering when things go well, boosting their self-esteem and confidence.

Evidence of polarising trends in young women’s mental health could be the first step in linking time trends to the sort of cultural and societal individualization that is being increasingly talked about amongst those concerned with the health and wellbeing of the UK’s young people.

For young women, continuing gender inequalities (some legislative, some cultural), which serve to frustrate women’s dreams of self-realisation, might also help to explain the differences in poor levels of mental health in particular that we see between them and young men.

By 2020, the NHS has promised that 70,000 more young people will be able to access services for their mental health problems. Robust evidence on trends and how the story of young people’s mental health is changing over time will be key to ensuring those services are provided effectively and efficiently.

Time trends in mental well-being: the polarisation of young people’s psychological distress is research by Andy Ross, Amanda Sacker and Yvonne Kelly and is published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology

Photo credit: Allan Bergman