The mental health of teenagers has sharply declined in the last 25 years and 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 of 15-year-old girls. The study found no increase in aggressive behaviour, such as fighting and bullying, and no increase in rates of hyperactivity.
Nor can growing inequality over the 25 years explain the rise in problem teenagers because rates of increase were comparable in all social classes. There was no difference between white and ethnic minority teenagers.
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. This indicated that the rise in problems cannot be attributed to a greater likelihood to report them.
The deterioration of adolescents’ mental health in Britain is in contrast to the findings of research in the US which showed that a comparable decline tailed off in the 90s, while in Holland, there was no decline at all.
The study, Time Trends in Adolescent Mental Health, to be published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in November, is the first to provide evidence in support of the increasing concern from parents and teachers about the welfare of teenagers.
The research conducted by a team from the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and the University of Manchester, provides specific evidence for Britain which is in line with the World Health Organisation’s warning last year that the fastest-growing mental health problem in the world, and particularly in the developed world, was among adolescents. “We are doing something peculiarly unhelpful for adolescent mental health in Britain,” said Sharon Witherspoon, deputy director of the Nuffield Foundation which funded the research. “This is not a trend which is being driven by a small number of kids who are getting worse. It is not a small tail pulling down the average but a more widespread malaise.”
“The route people take to adulthood has become much more difficult with the pressure on for qualifications,” said John Coleman, director of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence. “When young people are faced with all these choices, they say they have to ‘make it up as they go along’.”
The study was not focused on the most serious cases such as suicide and self-harm where other recent studies have shown significant increases, but the more general experience of adolescents which is less likely to reach the point of needing professional intervention.
The findings are likely to fuel debates about how we are raising our children and whether they reflect parenting in early years or are linked to Britain’s secondary education system with its emphasis on academic achievement, and poor record of out of school activities.
A recent survey showed that discipline in secondary schools comes ahead of funding as parents’ greatest concern.
Next month, the Tomlinson report into 14-19 year-old education and training – commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills – is due to be published; a green paper on youth services is also expected this autumn.
The study did not look into possible causes, which are to be the subject of further research.
Also subject to further research is whether there has been a comparable rise in emotional and behavioural disorders among younger age groups or whether this is a specific problem in adolescence.