The mental health of 13-19 year-olds in Britain is under severe pressure across a range of indicators, according to new research by the Mental Health Foundation and Swansea University.
The study is one of the few that repeatedly asked younger teenagers across Britain about their experiences during the pandemic.
More than a quarter of teenagers (27%) surveyed said they had felt ‘nervous, anxious or on edge’ on most or nearly all the days of the previous fortnight.
The same proportion said they had felt ‘easily annoyed or irritable’ on most or nearly all the days of the previous fortnight, while almost a third (32 per cent) had had trouble with sleep.
While more than a quarter (26%) had trouble concentrating over the same period, on things including school work, reading and watching TV.
Teenagers’ rating of their own mental health has also worsened during the pandemic. When surveyed in late summer, 10% said their mental health had been ‘poor’ before lockdown. When questioned again in late November, 16% described their mental health as ‘poor’.
One 17-year-old said: ‘There’s so much pressure because it’s hard for me to provide for everyone I love, through work, support and basic financial help that I can no longer provide them.
‘I’m also very scared of losing myself and becoming incapable, I don’t want to be crushed by the dark feeling that’s been eating lots of people up.’
The research also revealed that teenagers with unemployed parents appear to be at especially high risk of having symptoms of anxiety and depression, compared with those whose parents work full-time.
For instance, they are more than twice as likely to feel ‘afraid, as if something awful might happen’ and ‘down, depressed, irritable or hopeless’.
Those whose parents are in social grades ‘C2DE’ (which include manual workers and people who are unemployed or living on benefits) also appear to be at significantly greater risk than their peers with ‘ABC1’ parents (see Notes to Editors for more detail).
However, across all teenagers, many reported having such experiences.
Catherine Seymour, head of research at the Mental Health Foundation, said: ‘These findings are a warning about how painful many young people’s lives have become during the pandemic.
‘We gathered the findings before the recent school closures – and fear that when we next ask teenagers about their experiences, they will be feeling even worse.
‘Young people have told us that they often feel afraid, sad or bad about themselves – and so it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a rise in the number who say their own mental health is ‘poor’.
‘Our concern is that the longer the pandemic goes on, the more embedded these problems can become.
‘Furthermore, our evidence indicates that teenagers from less advantaged homes are having the hardest emotional struggle of all. They are much more likely to report frequent symptoms of anxiety and depression than their peers with parents in jobs that are typically better-paid.
‘It may be that those in poorer households are more likely to lack enough space and internet access, to help with schoolwork and communication with their friends. They may also be affected by their parents’ financial worries and stress.
‘This is how a family’s economic disadvantage can affect young people’s mental health, potentially for many years.’
Professor Ann John, professor of Public Health and Psychiatry at Swansea University, said: ‘The pandemic has exposed the deep inequalities in our society.
‘Many studies have shown the greater impact and widening gaps in mental health difficulties, educational attainment and more severe financial consequences for the young and those in living in poverty.
‘It is therefore no surprise that our study has uncovered worse mental health outcomes for teenagers in the poorest households.
‘The government needs to deliver targeted support to those most at risk of developing a mental health problem in the context of their economic circumstances.
‘This is vital now, and to our recovery as a nation going forward.
‘More than this, the government must address the factors that can contribute towards young people having problems with their mental health in the first place.
‘This means delivering an equitable welfare system, guaranteeing housing safety and security and ensuring teenagers have the basics to live comfortably through the pandemic and beyond, including food and warmth.
‘Ultimately, the task is to lift young people out of the impoverished conditions that underlie so much distress.’
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