A major national study of over 11,000 Year 13 students (aged 17-18) has found that a quarter have sought some form of mental health support over the previous 12 months, yet many are struggling to access that support. Of those who sought help, 35% said they were either on a waiting list or had otherwise yet to receive it.
Importantly, the research reveals that young people in the most deprived parts of the country are 11 percentage points more likely to say they are still waiting or have not received the support they applied for, at 39% compared to 28% of those in the most affluent areas.
The disparities in access to specialist mental health support services, such as NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), were even more stark. Young people living in the poorest areas were more than twice as likely to have not received support as the most affluent pupils – 39% in deprived areas had not received or were still waiting for support, compared to just 18% in more affluent areas.
Overall, the study shows that 44% of Year 13s could be classified as experiencing high psychological distress between November 2022 and April 2023, the same proportion as in the previous COSMO study last year (October 2021-April 2022) and considerably higher than 35% in 2017 and 23% in 2007 in studies of similar age groups. This underscores the alarming trend that the mental health of the current generation is worse than that of previous generations.
A link can also be drawn between the increased rate of high psychological distress and ongoing high persistent school absence levels, which have risen from 13% pre-pandemic to 22% this year. Previous COSMO analysis has highlighted that psychological distress is an important predictor of persistent school absence, and persistent absence is having a significant impact on young people’s learning. It’s therefore crucial that those experiencing high psychological distress are provided appropriate and timely support, so they miss as little learning time as possible.
The research also finds that over a quarter (28%) of students in school or college said their mental health support was not good enough. State school students were twice as likely as private school pupils to say that their school’s mental health support was not good enough (32% compared to 16%).
These findings point to a significant divide in access to mental health support for this cohort of young people, with those in the poorest parts of England the least likely to receive it when requested. This has the potential to store up long-term consequences for disadvantaged young people’s life chances.
Furthermore, the study finds that non-binary+ young people (67%) and girls (33%) were more likely to report seeking support with their mental health than boys (15%). It finds further evidence that bullying and harassment specifically related to an individual’s identity are more common for those from marginalised groups, including those of an ethnic minority (15% of Black participants have been harassed regarding their skin colour or ethnicity) and those outside the gender binary (44% non-binary+ students have been harassed about their sex, gender or gender identity). However, White (40%) respondents and those of mixed/other ethnicities (39%) classified as experiencing high psychological distress were much more likely to report seeking mental health support compared to Asian (25%) and Black (30%) respondents.
The COSMO cohort study, led jointly by the UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and the Sutton Trust is the largest of its kind. The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), part of UK Research and Innovation. It is tracking the lives of a cohort of over 11,000 young people in England who took A Level exams and other qualifications this summer and were due to start university, other studies or move into work this autumn.
The report’s authors are calling for sustainable and well-funded support for young people experiencing mental health issues, with a focus on improving services in the most deprived areas. They also call on schools to develop more tailored support for non-binary+ and LGBTQ+ students with input from professionals who have been trained to understand the needs of these young people.
Dr Jake Anders, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), and COSMO’s Principal Investigator, said:
“The scale of the crisis in young people’s mental health is already well known. But these new findings from COSMO show that we are simply not doing enough to tackle it. It is vital that we properly resource mental health services across the country. There is no quick, cheap fix to achieving that.
“We must also ensure that these services are targeted to where there is the most need. If more young people living in worse-off areas are not receiving the support that they need, this will widen existing gaps in life chances.”
Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:
“This research underscores the severity of the mental health crisis facing youngsters, who have endured significant disruption to their education and social lives since the pandemic. It’s particularly troubling that young people from the poorest parts of England and those from working class backgrounds are struggling the most to access mental health support. There can be no doubt that this is likely to harm their future life chances if it is not addressed.
“The Sutton Trust would like to see sustainable and well-funded support for young people experiencing mental health issues, including preventative and early intervention services. Further support should be targeted at the most deprived areas, to provide better access to mental health support.”
Notes to editors:
The COSMO (COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities) Study is a major national youth cohort study which is examining the short-, medium- and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing cost of living crisis on educational inequality, wellbeing and social mobility. The study is a collaboration led by the UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), the Sutton Trust and the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation.
The second wave of the study re-contacted a sample of over 11,500 young people across England in Year 13 or equivalent who also took part in last year’s survey. Data is weighted to be nationally representative.
Data from the COSMO study is now available from the UK Data Service: https://beta.ukdataservice.ac.uk/datacatalogue/series/series?id=2000124
Methodological notes: Young people’s gender is based on a report of their self-identity, providing options of ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘non-binary’ or allowing respondents to choose to identify in another way. The latter two options have been grouped as ‘non-binary+’ – 334 young people in the sample – which reduces identifiability risks whilst still allowing reporting of this marginalised group. It is recognised that this may not fully capture everyone’s preferred gender identity.
The General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) consists of 12 questions that include: Have you recently lost much sleep over worry? Have you recently been feeling unhappy or depressed? Have you recently been losing confidence in yourself? and Have you recently felt constantly under strain? An average score is found, with those scoring 4 and above classified as experiencing high psychological distress.
Figure for the ‘Next Steps’ Cohort has been calculated by the authors (Wave 4 of the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LYSPE), conducted in 2007).
Figure for the ‘Our Future’ Cohort (Wave 5 of the LSYPE cohort 2, conducted in 2017) is derived from: Department for Education (2019). State of the nation 2019: Children and Young People’s Wellbeing. Government Social Research. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/state-of-the-nation-2019-children-and-young-peoples-wellbeing.
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