World Mental Health Day 2018: Children and Young People. Why is there a ticking time bomb?

The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World. It is a topic of which I am deeply passionate, and is at the heart of my business: from delivering the 2-Day Youth Mental Health First Aid course, to research, to workshops in schools.

Every generation faces unique challenges and opportunities. Much of this is dictated by your birthplace and the society in which we live. Whilst a young person in the UK will not be faced with the great hardships seen in the World Wars of the 1900s, this must not discredit the challenges faced by the millions of children and young people in modern Britain. It is pointless to compare the generations; times have changed, and challenges are different. Teenage suicide is on the rise, we have seen an unprecedented demand for mental health services, and schools are buckling under the pressure of acting as educators and carers. [1-3] World War or not, the level of need demands attention – not judgement or endless philosophical debate.

It is estimated that 50% of long-term mental health problems start by the age of 14, and 75% by the age of 18. [4] At £105bn, the social and financial costs of poor mental health on the economy are vast. [5] This includes lost productivity – absenteeism and presenteeism in the workplace – as well as welfare costs and lowered quality of life. We are also seeing a great number of young people in crisis, and a 2017 NHS report found that child A&E admissions doubled over five years. [6]

There is no doubt that modern-day living is having an impact on the wiring of a young person’s brain. In an age of 24/7 connectivity and a pressure to be contactable at all time, children – and adults – are struggling to switch off. Receiving a ‘Like’ on Facebook or Instagram floods the brain with a rush of dopamine and ‘feel good’ hormones. This constant need for instant gratification and an inability to feel content with calm, non-stimulated environments, is a worry for all.

Exam pressure, family breakdowns, health problems and financial struggles are further contributing to a generation growing up with an underlying sense of stress. There is also a lack of financial independence as young people enter their 20s. House prices make it nearly impossible for under 35s in many parts of the country (particularly London) to get on to the property ladder and the job market is more competitive than ever. Gone were the days of jobs for life and the guarantee of mortgages. Connectivity via the Internet also means that young people are exposed to events from all across the world. The recent increase in home-grown terrorist incidents have created a situation where young people are more vigilant and alert. It is therefore no surprise that reported rates of anxiety have sky-rocketed in recent years.

Set against this context is an NHS struggling to cope with demands. The funding deficit has been an issue for many years with a surge of cuts to services. Unfortunately, despite the pledge for parity of esteem between mental and physical health problems, financing mental health services is exceptionally lower: despite a 23% prevalence rate, it is estimated that mental health services receive 13% of funding. More worryingly, children’s under 18 mental health services (CAMHS) are significantly underfunded, receiving just 6% of the total mental health budget. In total, this amounts to 0.7% of the NHS budget being spent on children’s mental health. [7]

So what can we do? Whilst we cannot magically make a young person’s problems go away, I foresee 3 ways we can tackle this ticking time bomb. This is met by long-term thinking; early intervention will not necessarily see results for several years. These ideas include:

  1. Breaking down the stigma around mental health. This means talking openly about mental health, just like we would about physical health. Invite campaigners and those with lived experience into the school – talking to the students, and providing hope in recovery, can break down misconceptions about what a person with mental illness should look like.
  2. Taking a ‘whole school’ approach to tackling poor mental health – from upskilling staff and providing lessons in the classroom, to promoting positive mental health practices for employees and across management.
  3. Ensuring there is someone trained in youth mental health first aid (MHFA). It’s compulsory to have a first aider to respond to physical health emergencies, so let’s train our staff in the certified 2-Day course by MHFA England. It’s not a magic wand or cure, but a puzzle piece in a long-term strategy.

Ignoring the rising numbers of young people struggling with their mental health, and dismissing it all as typical teenage behaviour is inappropriate and can be seriously damaging to a person who has plucked up the courage to open up about their emotional wellbeing. Let’s change this. So today, check-in on a young person you know. Ask them how they are. Know they are struggling? Let them know you’re there if they want a chat. Feeling understood, feeling cared for, feeling less alone; it could be the one thing that they are craving right now.






[4] No Health Without Mental Health, 2015

[5] Five Year Forward View, NHS England 2016

[6] NHS Digital 2017

[7] YoungMinds Annual Report 2015/2016


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