The mental health and wellbeing of young people in the UK was a growing problem before the pandemic. However, following national lockdowns and school closures, these issues have become a top dilemma for many working in education, allowing us to reconsider how assessments and qualifications have affected students’ wellbeing.

To address these concerns, it is useful to understand the historical context and current landscape of young people’s mental health in England:

  1. Prevalence: Rates of probable mental disorders among children in England has risen from 1 in 9 (10.8%) in 2017 to 1 in 6 (16%) in 2020. The increase has applied to both girls and boys, and those experiencing psychological problems are statistically less likely to receive support from school or colleges and live in a household experiencing financial insecurity.[1]
  2. Life Course: The majority of mental illness develops during adolescence and young adulthood. 50% begins by the age of 14 and a further quarter (75%) by 24.[2] In 2018, the OECD reported that 10% of over-16 year olds exhibited psychological distress symptoms, in line with other EU countries.[3]
  3. Treatment: 16 to 24 year-olds are the least likely age group to receive mental health treatment.[4] Barriers include: a lack of knowledge of specialist services; time constraints caused by school and parents’ working hours; geographical dispersal of services; waiting times as well as administrative barriers for primary clinicians when referring children for specialist treatment.[5]
  4. Risk factors: Mental wellbeing is linked to socioeconomic positions and minority group status. Household income and social security has been linked to the occurrence of mental illness. In 2020, the Department for Education reported that students eligible for FSM 50% more likely to experience acute anxiety than their non-FSM peers.[6] Protective factors- conditions which make students less likely to effectively manage day-to-day life- such as poor support networks or low self-esteem- are also present in minority groups.In 2017, it was reported that there was a 13 percentage point gap between students who did and did not identify as a member of the LGBTQI+ community in their experiences of depression of anxiety (42% versus 29%).[7] NHS data has also revealed that BAME youth were disproportionately affected by the pandemic compared to their white peers, with reports of suicidal thoughts increasing by 26.6% and 18.1%, respectively.[8]
  5. Impact on attainment. A 2014 publication by Public Health England (PHE) and the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) stressed the impact of wellbeing on academic performance. It noted that positive mindsets were a strong predictor of academic outcomes, and those schools that have integrated social and emotional learning into their teaching and curriculum have observed higher results.[9] This corroborates more recent research conducted by University College London (UCL), who linked low attainment, wellbeing and absenteeism.[10] The Economic and Social Research Council (ERSC) also identified that students in Key Stage 3 who exhibited poor mental wellbeing were 2.7 times less likely to achieve good GCSE passes.[11]
  6. Curriculum. Following a long campaign by stakeholders, the Department for Education introduced Relationships, Health and Sex Education (otherwise known as RHSE) as a statutory part of primary and secondary schools’ curriculum. This includes content on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and guidance on how to navigate healthy relationships with family, peers and partners.[12]
  7. Services. Research commissioned by the Early Intervention Foundation identified that 97% of teachers registered their interest in receiving more training and over two thirds (65%) had not received any form of training within the previous twelve months. [13]

Overall, policy interventions to support young peoples’ mental health and wellbeing are a work in progress. The national curriculum now targets the prevention of psychological problems, and school-level mental health leads, and specific funding, seek to address the incidence of need.

Nonetheless, policymakers will continue to struggle to set realistic benchmarks for the reduction of students’ mental health problems, given multidimensional causes, the role of factors outside of the classroom and, more recently, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. New data will provide a better picture of how recent interventions - such as teaching material on mentally healthy lifestyles - affect the prevalence of psychological struggles among students.

There are outstanding questions around what impact mental health has on exam performance and how much exam stress contributes to mental ill-health. AQi will be exploring these themes, and others, in the coming months.

[1] NHS Digital. (2020). Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2020: Wave 1 follow up to the 2017 Survey.

[2] NHS. Children and young people’s mental services.

[3]  OECD. (2018). Adult mental health p.131.

[4] Mental Health Foundation. Mental health statistics: people seeking help.

[5] Anderson, J. K., Howarth, E., Vainre, M., Jones, P., & Humphrey, A. (2017). A scoping literature review of service-level barriers for access and engagement with mental health services for children and young people.

[6] Department for Education. (2020). State of the nation 2020: children and young people’s wellbeing. [Research Report]. p.141.

[7] Youth Chances. (2016). Youth Chances: Integrated Report. p. 2.

[8] Campbell. D. (202, 21st June). “Covid-19 affects BAME youth mental health more than white peers- study”. The Guardian.

[9] Public Health England & NAHT. November 2014. The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment: A briefing for head teachers, governors and staff in education settings. [Briefing] p.6.

[10] UCL. (2019). Study links poor mental health to educational outcomes.

[11] Economic & Social Research Council. (2019). How does poor mental health in the early years of secondary school impact on GCSE attainment? [Briefing]. p.3.

[12] Mentally Healthy Schools & Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families.Mental health on the curriculum in England.

[13] Early Intervention Foundation. Half of UK teachers don’t feel confident helping pupils with their mental health.