Health February 28, 2019
Teenage kicks… so last decade

By David Duffy - Accountable Care Journal

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that, while substance use and the behaviours associated with it are decreasing, mental health issues among young people are on the rise. This is according to a new study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The study took two cohorts of people, 5,600 born in 1992/3 (reaching adolescence by 2005) and 11,000 born in 2000-1 (reaching adolescence by 2015), seeking to paint a ten-year picture of the changing mental and behavioural state of adolescent in the UK.

The prevalence of depressive symptoms, such as self-harming, has increased dramatically. Adolescents who said they have self-harmed before rose from 12 per cent in 2005 to 14 per cent in 2015. While the rate of increase was similar for both genders, girls are still far more likely to self-harm than boys. Parent reported emotional difficulties, conduct problems, hyperactivity and other peer problems have also risen at an alarming rate (5.7– 9 per cent to 9 – 18 per cent).

The study also revealed a substantial decrease in the amount of sleep that young people are getting, with those surveyed in the 2015 cohort far more likely to go to bed later and wake up earlier – resulting in fewer people getting their recommended eight hours. Additionally, the number of young people who perceived themselves to be overweight in 2015 rose from 23 per cent in 2005 to 28 per cent in 2015.

Perhaps surprisingly, it appears the alarming downturn in adolescent mental wellbeing bears little relation to substance abuse. Indeed, fewer teenagers in 2015 had tried smoking and the usage of cannabis and other drugs was down to 4.3 per cent from 5 per cent a decade earlier. Adolescents were also found to be less sexually active than a decade prior and rates of vandalism are far lower.

In 2005 more than 52 per cent of those born in the early 1990s had tried alcohol by age 14, compared with less than 44 per cent in 2015. The study also found rates of 14-year-olds deliberately punching or kicking someone have dropped from 40 per cent to 28 per cent, and rates of teenagers committing acts of vandalism has decreased from 6 per cent to 2 per cent. So, what’s going wrong?

Researchers behind the report have a suggested that the reasons behind deterioration of adolescent mental health may be changing. “The increasing trends of poor sleep, obesity and negative body image might help explain rising mental health difficulties experienced by young people,” said Dr Praveetha Patalay, Associate Professor at and co-author of the study. "It's a holistic view,” she continued, “with some things getting worse and some improving. ”

While certain things should be viewed positively, such as the reduction in substance abuse, overall the study paints a worrying picture of the mental wellbeing of young people in the UK. “This study is a wake-up call to the different pressures today’s teenagers are under and the impact these may have on their mental health,” said Dr Bernadka Duicka, Chair of the Faculty of Child Adolescent Psychiatry Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

She continued, “We welcome NHS England’s commitment to improving support for children and young people with mental illnesses in the NHS Long-Term Plan, but in order to meet its aspirations focus is urgently needed on increasing numbers of skilled staff working in this area to ensure demand for services is met. ”

Lifetime impacts

There is growing recognition that adolescent years are hugely important in the development of long-term behaviour and health outcomes throughout a person’s life. Alarmingly, research conducted across the globe over recent decades has consistently suggested that the prevalence of mental health problems in teenagers is on the rise.

While attention to adolescent health has increased in recent years, there is still relatively little in the way of millennial generational comparative studies, such as this one. Considering the decreasing levels of substance abuse, this study has the potential to encourage further investigations into other secular trends in mental health with health-related behaviours.

A key conclusion to be drawn from the report is that the relationship between health-related behaviours and one’s mental wellbeing is far more complex then previously thought. Gathering a better understanding of this relationship will be crucial to achieving the objectives set out in the NHS Long Term Plan published last month.

The fulll report can be read here.

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