How mental ill-health shapes the education and economic prospects of young people

A Resolution Foundation report on young people’s mental health and the impact on the economy is sobering. Urgent action is needed.

silhouette of a person with grey paper scrunched up around to depict depression


On Monday the Resolution Foundation launched their new report on how mental ill-health shapes the education and economic prospects of young people. It was a sobering launch event where the statistics doled out included that two in five young women have a mental health problem [it’s one in four for young men].

Louise Murphy, a co-author of the report, pointed to the dramatic increase in anti-depressant use among 18 to 24 year olds since 2015 – up from 9% to 12% – and said the number of young people on personal independence payments due to psychiatric problems has tripled since 2016. The problem is tipping over into the labour market too – with the number of young people out of work due to sickness having doubled recently. In the 1990s older people were more likely to be out of work due to mental health issues; now it is younger people.

This is an issue I have been flagging for some time, based on purely anecdotal evidence from the young people around me. Levels of anxiety in particular have been acute for some time. All of my children have either suffered from it or have a range of friends who do. It’s not a Covid thing, but Covid has undoubtedly exacerbated it. It shows that employers must look at mental health seriously and have a strategy in place as well as training and support for line managers. Yet we know that many have rolled back mental health support post-Covid, thinking of it as a purely working from home during a pandemic thing. The mental health tail of Covid will be long in any event, but the mental health crisis among young people much pre-dates the pandemic. The Resolution Foundation in particular singles out hospitality and retail as sectors where support needs to be bolstered, given the numbers of young people who work in them, often in low-paid, insecure jobs, which must surely have some impact.

But catching mental illness early is crucial and we know waiting lists for CAMHS are long. That’s why support which is accessible on an everyday basis at school matters. The Foundation launch focused on the need for more mental health support in schools, particularly in further education colleges since non-graduates face a double disadvantage. It’s a chicken and egg situation to some extent – mental health can affect pupil attendance and attainment, which can lead to low paid, insecure jobs with little career pathway.  The Foundation says young people also need wraparound support if they have to re-sit exams and with things like interview techniques for jobs. It is calling for the expansion and reform of DWP youth hub support to include mental health support and to be made widely available so that those who are not in receipt of benefits can access it.

There are many different reasons why young people’s mental health has taken a nosedive. What we need to do urgently is to understand what makes for good mental health. A new book, Languishing, seeks to do just that and focuses, for instance, on a sense of purpose and deep social connections. That begins with people taking the time to listen to each other, to talk and to reflect. We adults also need to encourage young people to discuss what might help and to develop their own ideas. The Foundation report is in part built on focus groups with young people. I remember being struck, after many rants about social media, about how constructively my daughter was using it to boost her friends’ self confidence. But the first thing is to admit not just how big the problem is but how much of all our lives it will affect if we don’t urgently grasp that.

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