Teenagers' mental health is on the decline
Nov 16 2004
by Aled Blake, Western Mail (Wales, UK)

MENTAL health of teenagers has sharply declined in the last 30 years, according to a study of 15-year-olds across Britain.

Time Trends in Adolescent Mental Health, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, discovered the chances that 15-year-olds will have behavioural problems such as lying, stealing and being disobedient, have more than doubled.

The rate of emotional problems such as anxiety and depression has increased by 70% among adolescents, according to the biggest time trend study conducted in Britain. Boys are more likely to exhibit behavioural problems and girls are more likely to suffer emotional problems.

The rate is higher for emotional problems, now running at one in five 15-year-old girls. The study found no increase in aggressive behaviour, such as fighting and bullying, and no increase in rates of hyperactivity.

Researchers looked at three generations of 15-year-olds, in 1974, 1986 and 1999. Behavioural problems increased over the whole period, while emotional problems were stable until 1986 and have subsequently shot up.

Sharon Witherspoon, deputy director of the Nuffield Foundation which funded the research, said, "We are doing something peculiarly unhelpful for adolescent mental health in Britain.

"This is not a trend which is being driven by a small number of kids who are getting worse. It is a more widespread malaise."

The research found that the rising rate of 15-year-olds with behavioural problems correlated to their increased chances of experiencing a range of poor outcomes as adults, such as homelessness, being sacked, dependency on benefits and poor mental and physical health.

John Coleman, director of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence, said, "The route people take to adulthood has become much more difficult with the pressure on for qualifications. When young people are faced with all these choices, they say they have to 'make it up as they go along'."

The Government in Westminster pledged fundamental reform of children's mental health services after the publication of evidence.

Trends in Britain are in contrast to studies carried out in the Netherlands and USA, where the mental health of teenagers there declined and then levelled off.

The study found that marked changes in family type (such as increases in the numbers of single-parent families) over the period were not the main reason for rising trends in behaviour problems.

Changes in social problems were not the main reason for the trend, although there is a social class gradient in emotional difficulties that was not there before.

Andrew McColloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said on the day of the launch, "The increase in self-harm is one of a number of indicators in the mental health field that show something is wrong.

"It may be visible evidence of growing problems facing our young people, or of an inability to respond to those problems."