Sep 7, 2015

Back To School Blues: The Rise in Depression in Young People


It's the time of year where families get their little darlings back through the school gates with uniforms labelled, pencils sharpened, and head lice repellent firmly in place. The sun has started noticeably to disappear, and the 'Book your Christmas Party with us' emails float unsolicited into the inbox.Working in healthcare communications means having your finger on the pulse of the nation's emotional as well as its physical health, and we've been struck by figures published recently about the rising levels of depression and anxiety in teenagers and young people. New research by NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Exellence, shows there are an estimated 80,000 children in the UK suffering from depression, of which a tenth are under 10 years old. The not-for-profit organisation, YoungMinds, states that one in 10 children and young people aged 5 - 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder- that's around three children in every class.


The 'What's the problem?' page of YoungMinds's website lists the following reasons:

  • Family breakdown is widespread
  • Pressure to have access to money, the perfect body and lifestyle
  • 24 hour social networking and access to certain types of internet content
  • Bullying on and offline is rife
  • Increasing sexual pressures and early sexualisation
  • Fear of crime and violence
  • Exam pressure at school, plus university entry is more competitive and expensive
  • 13% of 16-24 year olds are not in employment, education or training (NEET)

Commenting on these new stats via an article for The Guardian, Ewan Gillon, psychologist and clinical director of independent provider, First Psychology Scotland, cites possible contributors such as the rise of social media, unrealistic body image 'bombardment' and cyberbullying. He points out the marked decline in outdoor play after school over the past decade, with a move to play on computers and social media indoors; "Young people are bombarded with images and advice from celebrities on how to achieve the "perfect body". These pressures often cause young people to develop low self-esteem which can lead to depression." (On a personal note, years ago, whilst helping out on a school trip, I was genuinely shocked to overhear two 5 year old girls discussing which foods in their lunchboxes would make them fat. Naive of me, perhaps, but a lesson nonetheless in what tender minds will pick up on.) However, Gillon warns we must be cautious about misdiagnosing children due to anxious parents. "Parents often make up their own diagnosis and refer their child to therapy when there isn't really a serious problem. Therapists then spend time reassuring the parent that what they are seeing is normal developmental processes."

That said, if we leave national boundaries and age out of the picture, it's a sobering thought that the World Health Organisation, WHO, predicts that by 2030, more people will be affected by depression than any other health problem. Knowing how to spot early signs of emotional distress and depression in young people before they escalate should be on the radar of parents, teachers and young people alike. This is where organisations such as YoungMinds help by raising awareness and tackling some of the issues at play via clever campaigns which use social media, clear, compelling messages and practical tips. This blog was written whilst listening to one of the exam revision playlists on the YoungMinds website, and though it was ambient music rather than blues, it definitely hit the right note.


Depression is no new phenomenon. Truman Capote's 1958 novella, Breakfast At Tiffany's, sees beautiful socialite, Holly Golightly separate the people around her into 'phonies' and 'real phonies' in a way that seems highly relevant nearly 60 years on, in today's celebrity and social media-led world. Despite Holly's charm and beauty, she is compelled to explain her up-and-down emotions: "The blues are because you're getting fat and maybe it's been raining too long; you're just sad, that's all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid and you don't know what you're afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?"

Access to mental health care for young people has been extremely patchy in recent years, despite the rising need for services. Author and psychologist, Stephen Biddulph, whose book Raising Boys was translated into 27 languages and sold in its millions, felt compelled to publish Raising Girls in 2013 in reaction to what he saw as a 'sudden and marked plunge in girls' mental health in the past 5 years.' He calls on parents to resist advertising and fashion, food and weight-loss industries, and campaign to raise the drinking age to 21.Incidentally, Raising Boys was written in part to counter decades of fashionable consensus that the sexes were essentially the same, and to highlight differences in brain development between them. Controversially, he warned parents, 'If you routinely work a 55 or 60 hour week, including commute times, you just won't cut it as a dad. Your sons will have problems in life, your daughters will have self-esteem issues, and it will be down to you.'

Whether or not avoiding long working hours is theoretically practical for us all, or indeed effective enough to prevent mental health problems, it is at least encouraging to hear the NHS announce the first stage of its new programme to improve children and young people's mental health and wellbeing. This will includes the distribution of 30m to improve community-based eating disorder services, with the aim seeing 95% of patients seen within 4 weeks (urgent cases within one week).

So, progress is being made in the near term. In the long-term, tackling a highly preventable illness will involve many initiatives, and these include targeting healthcare communications towards those most at risk or in need.


  • Roughly 725,000 people in the UK suffer from eating disorders, 86% of whom will have shown symptoms before the age of 19.[1]
  • One in 10 deliberately harm themselves regularly[2]15,000 of whom are hospitalised each year as a result[3])
  • Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression[4]
  • Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.[5]
  • 45% of children in care have a mental health disorder - these are some of the most vulnerable people in our society[6]
  • Nearly 300,000 young people in Britain have an anxiety disorder.[7]
  • 95% of imprisoned young offenders have a mental health disorder. Many struggle with more than one disorder.[8]
Sep 7, 2015