Young people’s access to mental health support shouldn’t be such a lottery

Nick Harrison reflects on new Sutton Trust findings on the breadth, depth and inequities of the mental health crisis in young people

Nick Harrison reflects on new Sutton Trust findings on the breadth, depth and inequities of the mental health crisis in young people

9 Nov 2023, 11:55

Today, the Sutton Trust has published a major new report highlighting the ongoing mental health crisis affecting young people in England. It should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers and educators.

Alongside our research partners behind this COSMO study, we’ve surveyed 11,000 young people who have just taken their A Levels, of whom over 3,000 were studying at either an FE college or a sixth form college. Overall, we found that 44 per cent could be classified as experiencing high psychological distress.

This reinforces the alarming trend that the mental health of the current generation is worse than that of previous generations. We had picked up similar results this time last year, and it’s worrying to see these figures remain stubbornly high, indicating that the pandemic’s effects are anything but short-term. The numbers are also considerably higher than the 35 per cent experiencing high psychological distress at the same age in a similar study carried out in 2017, and the 23 per cent found in a 2007 study.

Most worryingly, those in the most deprived parts of the country were 11 percentage points more likely to say they are still waiting for the support they applied for, at 39 per cent compared to 28 per cent of those in the most affluent areas. And when it comes to specialist services, those in the most deprived areas were more than twice as likely to have not received support as the most affluent.

This stark divide has the potential to store up long-term negative consequences for disadvantaged young people’s life chances. In particular, we know they are also more than twice as likely to be persistently absent from education than their better-off peers, with mental health problems known to be a key driver of the increasing absences. Young people are missing education and falling behind because they’re not getting the mental health support they need.

The mental health crisis is the result of a long-term trend which has accelerated in recent years. There are a number of factors behind it. These include increased social media use and growing pressure on young people to get top grades to secure highly-competitive opportunities for university places, apprenticeships and jobs.

Young people are not getting the support they need

But most importantly, the pandemic has hit this generation of young people hard. Stuck at home at crucial times in their development, they suffered personally, socially and academically, missing important milestones and opportunities and having to make up for lost learning.

To begin to improve this situation, we need laser-like focus on improving mental health services in the most deprived areas. It’s completely unacceptable that young people in disadvantaged areas are the most likely to struggle to access the support they need when they need it. This can only create further issues down the line, for them and our communities.

College budgets are stretched as it is, so we are calling for sustainable and well-funded support for young people experiencing mental health issues both in college and in the community to fill the gap in provision. Preventative and early intervention services will be key to help address challenges at an earlier stage.

Furthermore, we know that bullying can be an aggravating factor for mental health. Our study shows that one-quarter of participants have reported being bullied over the past 12 months. Colleges should also implement well-evidenced anti-bullying programmes, with bullying training offered to teachers and lecturers, senior leaders and mental health practitioners who work in these settings.

There’s no simple or quick solution, and it could be years before we truly understand the full impact of the pressures faced by today’s young people. But a renewed focus on improving access to services – particularly for those currently missing out – could go a long way to ensuring their futures are not blighted by the challenges of the past few years. It will also stem the tide of new problems arising, ensuring future cohorts of young people experience more positive mental health outcomes.

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