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Mental health

Some of the most common mental disorders experienced by young people include anxiety disorders, mood disorders, behavioural disorders and eating disorders.  Mental health problems have important implications for all aspects of young people’s lives.

Among boys the likelihood of a disorder is highest at age 11-16.  Among girls, it is 17-19

Overall prevalence of mental disorder

Nearly 1 in 4 young women aged 17-19 meet the criteria for having a mental disorderPrevalence data on mental disorders in children and young people in England were published by NHS Digital in 2018 (Sadler et al, 2018). The survey followed two previous rounds undertaken in 1999 and 2004. Information was collected from 9,117 children and young people between January and October 2017. Approximately 4,000 of these were aged 11-19. Young people and their parents completed standardised tools that measured disorder as specified in the International Classification of Disease (ICD-10) diagnostic criteria. This is important as it is a robust and internationally recognised list of diagnosable mental health problems, not simply of symptoms.

Overall 14.4% of 11-16 year olds and 16.9% of 17-19 year olds met the criteria for having a mental disorder in 2017. Within these headline figures there was quite considerable variation by gender and age. Chart 6.6 shows the prevalence rates for all three age groups (5-10, 11-16 and 17-9), clearly showing the developmental trend for these disorders to increase in the early teens for both genders, and then to continue increasing into the late teens for young women. Nearly 1 in 4 young women aged 17-19 met the criteria for having a mental disorder.

Mental health disorders increase in the early teens for both genders, and then continue increasing into the late teens for young women

Among 16-24 year olds, common mental disorders are three times more frequent in young women than menAmong the 16-24 year olds in the 2014 English adult psychiatric morbidity survey the overall rate of common mental health problems was one in six (McManus et al, 2016). The prevalence of common mental disorders in this age group was about three times higher in women (26.0%) than men (9.1%).

The types of disorders experienced also vary by age and gender. Chart 6.7 uses the child and adolescent prevalence data to show that behaviour problems (largely oppositional defiant and conduct disorders) were more common in boys up to the mid-teens, while emotional problems (largely anxiety and depression) were more common for girls, particularly in the older age groups. Chart 6.8 shows that by age 17-19, emotional disorders are the most common type in both genders. Of the quarter of young women age 17-19 with a mental disorder, 22.4% had an emotional problem. Chart 6.9 shows this trend continuing into age 16-24, using different data (including different disorders classifications) from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (McManus et al, 2016).

The types of disorders experienced vary by gender in 11-16 year old
The types of disorders experienced vary by gender in 17-19 year olds
The types of disorders experienced vary by gender in 16-24 year olds

Similar prevalence studies are not undertaken in other UK countries, but the Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey (SALSUS) reports regularly on emotional and behavioural problems in Scottish schoolchildren aged 13 and 15. The most recent survey was undertaken in 2018 and problems were measured using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. The proportion with an ‘abnormal’ score was 20%, with a further 18% with ‘borderline’ scores. 15 year old girls were considerably more likely than any other sub-group to have a borderline or abnormal emotional problems score (Scottish Government, 2020a).

Nearly a quarter of 16-24 year olds in Scotland had a possible psychiatric disorder in 2019The Scottish Health Survey presents results for 16-24 year olds on a set of wellbeing and mental health measures, including the General Health Questionnaire, a widely used standard measure of mental distress and mental ill-health consisting of 12 questions on concentration abilities, sleeping patterns, self-esteem, stress, despair, depression, and confidence in the previous few weeks. A score of four or is used to indicate the presence of a possible psychiatric disorder. In the last full survey in 2019 nearly a quarter (23%) of those aged 16-24 had a GHQ-12 score of four or more, the highest amongst all adult age groups in the survey. There were very similar overall scores for young men and young women, but young women were more likely to have symptoms of depression or anxiety than young men (Scottish Government, 2020b).

All data correct as of 1st November 2021