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A survey published today by NHS Digital found 1 in 6 children in England had a probable mental disorder in 2021 – a similar rate to 2020 but an increase from 1 in 9 in 20171.
Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2021 showed that among 6–16-year-olds, the proportion with a probable mental disorder remained at 1 in 6 (17%) in 2021. Among 17–19-year-olds, the rate was also 1 in 6 (17%).
Figures were statistically similar in 2020 and 2021. In 2020, the rate of probable mental disorders was also 1 in 6 for both these age groups.
Both years showed an increase from 2017, when 1 in 9 (12%) 6–16-year-olds and 1 in 10 (10%) 17–19-year-olds had a probable mental disorder.
This report looks at the mental health of children and young people in England in 2021 and how this has changed since 2017 and 20205. Views on family life, education and services and experiences during the coronavirus pandemic have also been collected. The findings draw on a sample of 3,667 children and young people aged between 6 and 23 years old, who were surveyed in 2017 and 20216.
The survey was carried out earlier this year by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), University of Cambridge, and the University of Exeter.
This publication reports individual level change in mental health over time for the same group of children and young people. Some change may be due to different rates of mental health conditions being present at different ages. It shows 39% of children now aged 6 to 168 experienced a deterioration in their mental health between 2017 and 2021, while 22% saw an improvement.
Among young people now aged 17–23, 53% experienced a decline in mental health since 2017 and 15% experienced an improvement over that time.
Girls now aged between 11 and 16 were more likely to have experienced a decline in mental health (43%) than boys the same age (34%). This trend was also seen among those now aged 17 to 23, where young women were more likely to have experienced deterioration (61%) than young men (44%).
Other topics covered
- Eating problems. The proportion of 11 to 16-year-olds with possible eating problems increased from 7% in 2017 to 13% in 2021. Rates were higher for older age groups. Among young people aged 17 to 19, the proportion with a possible eating problem rose from 45% in 2017 to 58% in 2021.
- Sleep problems. In 2021, over a quarter (29%) of 6–10-year-olds, over a third (38%) of 11–16-year-olds, and over half (57%) of young people aged 17–23 were affected by problems with sleep on three or more nights of the previous seven. Across all age groups, levels of sleep problems were much higher in those with a probable mental disorder.
- Loneliness. In 2021, 5% of 11–16-year-olds and 13% of 17 to 22-year-olds reported feeling lonely often or always. Rates were higher in girls and young women than in boys and young men, and in those with a probable mental disorder, compared with those unlikely to have one.
- Substance use. In 2021, most 11–16-year-olds reported that they had not used alcohol (94%), cigarettes (98%), or cannabis or other drugs (99%) in the previous seven days. While rates of cigarette and drug use remained similar in 2020 and 2021, the proportion of 17–22-year-olds who had an alcoholic drink in the previous seven days fell from 56% in 2020 to 43% in 2021.
Wider topics within the context of the Covid pandemic
- Social media. In 2021, 17% of 11–16-year-olds using social media agreed that the number of likes, comments, and shares they received had an impact on their mood; and half (51%) agreed that they spent more time on social media than they meant to. Girls were more likely to agree with both statements than boys. Responses were similar in 2017 and 2021.
- Family connectedness and functioning. Children and young people aged between 11 and 23 with a probable mental disorder had lower levels of family connectedness than those unlikely to have a mental disorder. Looking at family functioning, in 2021 16% of 6–16-year-olds were living in a family with reported problems with functioning. The prevalence of family functioning problems were similar in 2020 and 2021.
- Household circumstances since August 2020. For 8% of children aged 6–16 in 2021, parents reported having recently fallen behind with bills and for 4%, parents could not afford to buy enough food or had needed to use a food bank more. Children with a probable mental disorder were more likely to live in households that had fallen behind with bills, rent or mortgage during the pandemic, with 13% of parents of 6–16-year-olds with a probable mental disorder reported this, and 9% had become more likely to be unable to afford to buy food, or had used a food bank. This compares with 7% and 3% respectively of those unlikely to have a mental disorder. These findings were similar to levels in 2020. Black and Black British 6 to 16-year-olds were about three times more likely to live in a household that had recently fallen behind with bills, rent or mortgage (19%) than children in the White British group (6%).
- Perceived impact of Covid restrictions. In 2021, 13% of 11–16-year-olds and 24% of 17–23-year-olds felt their lives had been made ‘much worse’ by coronavirus restrictions. In contrast, 4% of 11–16-year-olds and 2% of 17–23-year-olds felt these had made their lives ‘much better’. Children and young people with a probable mental disorder were about twice as likely to report that restrictions made their lives much worse, compared with those unlikely to have a mental disorder.
- School absence. Overall, 11% of 6–16-year-olds missed more than 15 days of school for any reason during the 2020 Autumn term. Children with a probable mental disorder were twice as likely to have missed this much school (18%) as those unlikely to have a mental disorder (9%).
- Learning resources. There was an increase in the proportion of 6–16-year-olds with a laptop or tablet they could work on at home – this rose from 89% in 2020 to 94% in 2021. The proportion receiving regular support from school or college also increased, from 74% in 2020 to 80% in 2021.
- Special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) support. In 2021, the parents of 46% of 6–16-year-olds with SEND reported a reduction in the support their child received due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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