Study finds worsening wellbeing and self-esteem among teenagers, raising fears pandemic will exacerbate trend.
The government has been urged to set up a post-pandemic wellbeing fund for schools in England to match its £650m academic catch-up funding, after a major study highlighted worsening mental health among young people, with teenage girls particularly severely affected.
The research tracked the experiences of young people in England, at the ages of 11, 14 and 17, and found that while wellbeing declined for all groups as they got older, girls experienced far lower levels of wellbeing and self-esteem than boys and were more likely to feel unhappy about their physical appearance.
The study by the Education Policy Institute and the Prince’s Trust, conducted over two years and based on data from the Millennium Cohort Study, found the proportion of girls that felt unhappy about their appearance rose sharply between the ages of 11 and 14, from one in seven (15%) to about one in three (29%).
Researchers found that poverty, heavy use of social media, being bullied in childhood and lack of physical exercise all had a negative impact on wellbeing, and warned that the experience of the pandemic was likely to exacerbate existing mental health and wellbeing problems among young people.
Whitney Crenna-Jennings, the report’s author and an EPI senior researcher, said: “Young people already face significant challenges at this stage in their lives, but this generation have also had to deal with a pandemic that will have starved them of the vital relationships and experiences needed to support their journey through adolescence.
“The government has provided extra academic support for pupils but there is now a compelling case for it to consider emergency funding to support young people’s mental health and wellbeing. If we fail to counter the ill-effects of this crisis on young people’s health and development, there is a real risk that it inflicts irreversible damage on their later life chances.”
With most children and young people studying from home during lockdown, the government is coming under growing pressure to set out when and how schools will reopen amid mounting concern about young people’s mental health. An NHS Digital report published last year found one in six young people have a probable mental illness, up from one in nine in 2017.
The schools minister, Nick Gibb, faced a battery of questions from disgruntled MPs when he appeared in the Commons on Tuesday to respond to an urgent question from Labour, amid continuing uncertainty about when and how schools will reopen and criticism of the government’s laptop scheme.
Among those MPs in favour of getting all children back in school was the Tory MP Dr Caroline Johnson, who said the balance of risk was now in favour of reopening schools. She said: “As a paediatrician, I see the damage that is being done to children’s mental health when they’re not at school.
“With the vaccination programme steaming ahead, levels of Covid falling and in some cases lower than they were last term when schools were open, does he agree with me that the balance of risk is now in favour of reopening schools and that they should reopen at February half-term at the very latest?”
Meanwhile, the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has published her own roadmap, calling for progress on school reopening to form a regular part of the Downing Street briefings. Among her proposals for gradual reopening are halving class sizes, staggered returns, rotas, a regionalised approach and the use of additional community spaces to spread pupils and make schools safer.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is clear that the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the mental health and wellbeing of many children, and we fully endorse this report’s recommendation for additional funding for schools to deliver extra support.”
A Government spokesperson said: “We are absolutely committed to supporting the mental wellbeing of children and young people, particularly through the challenges of this pandemic which have uniquely impacted this generation.
“Early intervention and treatment is vital and we are training a new dedicated mental health workforce for schools and colleges across the country as well as teaching what good mental and physical health looks like.”