Over half of teenage girls have mental health problems, major survey finds

·3-min read
Teenage girl
Teenage girl

Over half of teenage girls are suffering from poor mental health, a major study has found.

A survey of almost 13,000 teenagers in Year 11 in England by researchers at UCL and the Sutton Trust found that 54 per cent of 16 and 17 year old girls reported “elevated psychological distress”.

Almost a quarter said they have self-harmed in the last year and 11 per cent said they had attempted suicide.

A third of teenage boys in the same cohort reported psychological distress, while 11 per cent reported self-harm and five per cent said they had attempted suicide.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said the research “starkly reveals troubling differences between levels of male mental health and female mental health, with girls more than twice as likely as males to attempt suicide”.

Overall, 44 per cent of teenagers surveyed were above the threshold for “probable mental ill health”, up from 35 per cent in 2017 and 23 per cent in 2007.

Pandemic not to blame completely

Young people reported increased anxiety, sleep problems and panic attacks during the pandemic, with the mental health of those who had to shield or suffered from long Covid particularly suffering. Female pupils reported lower wellbeing and motivation, greater loneliness and greater anxiety than male students.

Dr Jake Anders, associate professor and deputy director of the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, said: “The level of young people whose responses suggest concern with their mental health is shocking. And young people particularly badly affected by the events of the pandemic are among those with the highest levels of distress.”

Dr Anders said that the high levels of reported poor mental health could not simply be attributed to the pandemic because they are a “continuation of a trend that is evident over the past decade or so”.

“While it is likely that the Covid-19 pandemic has sped this trend up, we should not lay all the blame for this picture at its door,” he said. “Things were bad before, and that means there are big systematic issues that need fixing. This problem won’t get better on its own.”

Fresh calls to deal with cyber bullying

Nearly a quarter of teenagers surveyed said they have been bullied at school, with researchers calling for a renewed focus on dealing with cyber bullying on social media in schools. Those who identified as non-binary or transgender were more likely to report bullying and psychological distress.

Researchers also said that children’s wellbeing could suffer where mental health risks are identified in parents.

Lucy Thorpe, head of policy at the Mental Health Foundation, said: “Adolescence is a time of great change for all young people and this often brings increased vulnerability in relation to their mental health. For young people experiencing additional challenges such as family discord, bullying or identifying as gender non-binary, this vulnerability is significantly heightened, as this research powerfully illustrates.”

The study found that 17 per cent of teenagers had self-harmed in the past year, with those from wealthier backgrounds more likely to say they have done so. A fifth of those with parents in a higher managerial or professional occupation reported self-harming, compared to 18 per cent of those with parents in an “intermediate occupation” and 15 per cent of those with a parent working in manual or routine labour, or who had never worked.

Dr Elaine Lockhart, chairman of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Some of the problems that result in a person self-harming themselves include feeling depressed, problems with friends and family, having difficulties at school or abuse.

“We know that many young people who self-harm do not disclose this and we need all those who care for and work with children and young people to be open to talking about it, be able to respond in a compassionate way and sign post them to further help if needed.”