Alarming mental health crisis among six to ten-year-olds in the UK

Shefali Saxena Wednesday 17th April 2024 02:24 EDT

The escalating mental health crisis among six to ten-year-olds in the UK has reached alarming proportions, surpassing concerns for any adult age group. Shockingly, statistics reveal that, on average, every primary school classroom now hosts a child with suspected mental health issues, signalling a troubling trend that experts have described as a "ticking time bomb."

The impact of lockdowns and prolonged treatment wait times has exacerbated the situation. Over the past year, the number of primary-age children in England waiting or undergoing treatment for mental health problems, including eating disorders, anxiety, and depression, has surged by a staggering 28%. This surge surpasses any increase observed in adult age groups, prompting Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, to label the figures as "stark" and indicative of a "generational mental health crisis."

Remarkably, more than 165,000 children between six and ten years old were in contact with NHS mental health services by the end of February, surpassing the numbers for any five-year age bracket over 20. Additionally, the number of urgent or emergency referrals for children has doubled from the previous year, indicating a growing need for immediate intervention. 

Surveys conducted by the NHS among five to ten-year-olds have highlighted "behavioural disorders" as the most common issue among boys, while "emotional disorders" prevail among girls. Moreover, financial concerns seem to exacerbate the situation, with a significant percentage of parents expressing worries about money about their children's mental health. 

Compounding the issue is the lengthy referral process for children under 16 seeking mental health support, which often leads to prolonged waiting times for assessment and treatment. The delays in diagnosing conditions like autism, with waits exceeding the target of 91 days, further exacerbate the crisis.

Campaigners criticised Meta's decision to lower the WhatsApp minimum age requirement in the EU and UK from 16 to 13 last week as "tone deaf." Amid rising concerns about mental health and increased phone use among young people, parents and carers are understandably anxious about the potential impact of this change on their teenagers.

In our recent issues, the newsweekly has carried inspiring stories of British Asians championing mental health issues as early as primary school age. British-Pakistani Boxer Adam Azim was four when he was diagnosed with ADHD. “I was very hyperactive, and I had this energy that no one in my family had ever seen before. My parents saw that I couldn’t stop fidgeting, and I kept moving around and messing about - so they took me to a doctor where I was diagnosed with ADHD. My family knew I needed an outlet for my energy, so they chose boxing and that helped me manage my ADHD,” Adam told Asian Voice in a previous interview. 


Shammi Kapoor was almost 20 when he understood his diagnosis on being under Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, and Depression. Today, he’s a champion of mental health and a brain trainer at his organisation - Brain Abilitiez, which helps people in managing conditions similar to Kapoor’s. 


Mental health experts spoke to Asian Voice, highlighting increasing pressures on children, attributing mental health issues to academic stress, peer pressure, and social media. According to them, early interventions in schools are crucial, focusing on mental health promotion, prevention of mental illnesses, and teaching coping strategies. 


These illnesses can be prevented 


Responding to the report, Dr Elaine Lockhart, Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Child and Adolescent Faculty, said, “We can no longer afford to overlook the mental health of babies and young children. Around half of mental health conditions are already established by the age of 14 and many of these may be traced back to our earliest experiences. Globally, an estimated one in five (20.1%) children aged between one and seven years have a mental health condition.”

She further explained that behaviours which indicate that a child might be at risk of developing a mental health condition must be caught at the earliest possible stage. Many of these illnesses can be prevented and treated quickly if children can access the right support.

Tom Madders, director of campaigns at YoungMinds, emphasises the urgent need for government action to address the crisis. He urges the prioritisation of young people's mental health through prevention and early intervention strategies, including the establishment of support hubs in every community and increased support in schools.

While the NHS reports a significant increase in young people accessing mental health support since 2019/20, additional measures are needed to meet rising demand. The Labour Party has pledged to provide support in every school, open mental health hubs in every community, and recruit 8,500 new mental health professionals to reduce waiting times.

Half of psychiatric disorders in adulthood start below the age of 15


Dinesh Bhugra, CBE, Professor Emeritus, Mental Health & Cultural Diversity, Kings College, London told Asian Voice, “Increasingly children are being pushed to achieve more academically and with added pressures from peers, teachers and social media, they are under tremendous pressures which are likely to affect their mental health and wellbeing as well as emotional wellbeing.


“Studies have shown that half of psychiatric disorders in adulthood start below the age of 15. It is increasingly being recognised that attachment patterns in childhood (i.e. how children react to primary individuals whether it is parents or others) affect brain development. Social and cognitive development are likely to be affected too.  WHO has suggested that the environments in which children are brought up and studied can influence academic learning and social, cognitive, behavioural, and emotional development. School mental health thus becomes vital in ensuring that individual children can look after their mental health. These programmes can be universal or targeted at vulnerable groups. 


“Promotion of good mental health and how to achieve it through teaching, physical education and support in schools is crucial. In addition, prevention of mental illnesses can be taught at an early age using sports and physical activities, educating children in identifying early signs of feeling under pressure and using other activities to manage distress. 


“School mental health programmes are a crucial part of mental health promotion and prevention of mental illnesses and teachers need to be a part of it.  Quality education, which is conducive to improving mental well-being and social and cognitive skills teaching important life skills, shaping a supportive environment and ethos, and building positive character traits like self-management and teamwork, amongst others can help. Recognising the interconnections between physical and mental health, promoting healthy eating and physical activity, alongside providing education is a must.”


Prof JS Bamrah CBE, Consultant Psychiatrist told the newsweekly, “There has been a steady rise in mental health problems in all ages in recent years, none more so than in children and young people. For children and adolescents, these have been made worse as a result of the lockdown and the huge pressures from many directions – such as social media, academic disruption to studies, domestic abuse or violence, climate change, and political instability across the globe. There is much merit in Esther Ghey’s campaign to implement Mindfulness in schools, but the most important point is that parents and teachers need practical support and guidance on how to tackle this hidden pandemic of stress, anxiety and depression in the younger population, otherwise, they will suffer long term harm from mental illness and they will not achieve their dreams and ambitions for their lives and careers.”


Dr Samir Shah, Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Director of Priory Hospital Altrincham and Clinical Director of Priory Private and Wellbeing Services said, “We have to ensure the proper investment of money, skills and workforce in child and adolescent services. This also includes school, community and healthcare. Most adult mental health issues start in childhood and adolescence. Look after them for a better future for the country, community and people.”

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