From education to employment

Almost half of young people in the most deprived areas struggling to get the mental health support they need

student stressed out in class

A major national study of over 11,000 Year 13 students (aged 17-18) has found that a quarter have sought some form of mental health support over the previous 12 months, yet many are struggling to access that support. Of those who sought help, 35% said they were either on a waiting list or had otherwise yet to receive it.

Importantly, the research reveals that young people in the most deprived parts of the country are 11 percentage points more likely to say they are still waiting or have not received the support they applied for, at 39% compared to 28% of those in the most affluent areas.

The disparities in access to specialist mental health support services, such as NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), were even more stark. Young people living in the poorest areas were more than twice as likely to have not received support as the most affluent pupils – 39% in deprived areas had not received or were still waiting for support, compared to just 18% in more affluent areas.

Overall, the study shows that 44% of Year 13s could be classified as experiencing high psychological distress between November 2022 and April 2023, the same proportion as in the previous COSMO study last year (October 2021-April 2022) and considerably higher than 35% in 2017 and 23% in 2007 in studies of similar age groups. This underscores the alarming trend that the mental health of the current generation is worse than that of previous generations.

A link can also be drawn between the increased rate of high psychological distress and ongoing high persistent school absence levels, which have risen from 13% pre-pandemic to 22% this year. Previous COSMO analysis has highlighted that psychological distress is an important predictor of persistent school absence, and persistent absence is having a significant impact on young people’s learning. It’s therefore crucial that those experiencing high psychological distress are provided appropriate and timely support, so they miss as little learning time as possible.

The research also finds that over a quarter (28%) of students in school or college said their mental health support was not good enough. State school students were twice as likely as private school pupils to say that their school’s mental health support was not good enough (32% compared to 16%).

These findings point to a significant divide in access to mental health support for this cohort of young people, with those in the poorest parts of England the least likely to receive it when requested. This has the potential to store up long-term consequences for disadvantaged young people’s life chances.

Furthermore, the study finds that non-binary+ young people (67%) and girls (33%) were more likely to report seeking support with their mental health than boys (15%). It finds further evidence that bullying and harassment specifically related to an individual’s identity are more common for those from marginalised groups, including those of an ethnic minority (15% of Black participants have been harassed regarding their skin colour or ethnicity) and those outside the gender binary (44% non-binary+ students have been harassed about their sex, gender or gender identity). However, White (40%) respondents and those of mixed/other ethnicities (39%) classified as experiencing high psychological distress were much more likely to report seeking mental health support compared to Asian (25%) and Black (30%) respondents. 

The COSMO cohort study, led jointly by the UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and the Sutton Trust is the largest of its kind. The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), part of UK Research and Innovation. It is tracking the lives of a cohort of over 11,000 young people in England who took A Level exams and other qualifications this summer and were due to start university, other studies or move into work this autumn. 

The report’s authors are calling for sustainable and well-funded support for young people experiencing mental health issues, with a focus on improving services in the most deprived areas. They also call on schools to develop more tailored support for non-binary+ and LGBTQ+ students with input from professionals who have been trained to understand the needs of these young people.

Sector Response

Dr Jake Anders, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), and COSMO’s Principal Investigator, said:

“The scale of the crisis in young people’s mental health is already well known. But these new findings from COSMO show that we are simply not doing enough to tackle it. It is vital that we properly resource mental health services across the country. There is no quick, cheap fix to achieving that.

“We must also ensure that these services are targeted to where there is the most need. If more young people living in worse-off areas are not receiving the support that they need, this will widen existing gaps in life chances.”

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“This research underscores the severity of the mental health crisis facing youngsters, who have endured significant disruption to their education and social lives since the pandemic. It’s particularly troubling that young people from the poorest parts of England and those from working class backgrounds are struggling the most to access mental health support. There can be no doubt that this is likely to harm their future life chances if it is not addressed.

“The Sutton Trust would like to see sustainable and well-funded support for young people experiencing mental health issues, including preventative and early intervention services. Further support should be targeted at the most deprived areas, to provide better access to mental health support.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“The fact that the incidence of poor mental health among young people remains very high is not only the legacy of the pandemic but also the impact of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis on families.

“Even before this surge in demand, specialist mental health services in many areas were unable to cope. Consequently, young people with complex needs often face very long and unacceptable waits for the support they urgently require. This in turn plays a part in the high rates of pupil absence experienced across the country with young people missing out on education that is vital to their life chances.

“It is particularly disturbing that this study finds that young people in the most deprived parts of the country are less likely to have received support than those in affluent areas. Once again, it seems that it is the poorest who suffer the most.

“It is of the utmost importance that more resources are put into mental health support services for young people, that those who require specialist treatment receive that treatment immediately, and that the government tackles the very high rate of child poverty in the UK.

“None of this should really need saying and yet we seem to be in a situation of having said this repeatedly for years without this action being taken.”

Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: 

“These new findings underline the importance of investing in education and in young people. The pandemic has a serious impact on the mental and emotional health of children and young people, yet the Government’s response was narrowly focussed on academic support which was often inadequate and poorly funded. 

“After a decade of cuts to school and local authority budgets, mental health support for young people has been harder and harder to access, and the Government has shown no signs of changing course. As these findings show, it is once again children in the most deprived communities who are facing the greatest challenges in accessing the support they need. 

“We know that school staff are seeing rising levels of need in schools and that schools are working hard to respond. The Government work towards restoring funding levels for schools and local authorities, and step up support for community mental health provision and services like CAMHS to stop the effects of this growing crisis from snowballing.” 

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