More than a million children have mental health problems, a doubling of the number in a generation, devastating research reveals today. An epidemic of disorders ranging from depression, anxiety and anorexia to violent delinquency has struck one in ten youngsters (UK).
Last night experts blamed a damaging mix of family breakdown, junk food diets, marketing, binge-drinking, increasing availability of drugs, sexy images projected by magazines and mounting exam pressure for the trend.
They warned that modern lifestyles were forcing youngsters to grow up more quickly than previous generations, robbing them of their childhoods.
The children’s charity, NCH, called for urgent action to prevent mental health problems wrecking the prospects of a generation.
It issued the warning as separate figures showed that the number of children admitted to hospital suffering from eating disorders has shot up more than a third in the last ten years.
The increase was immediately linked to the pressure on young people to look like a supermodel or celebrity.
Today, as it launches a campaign to improve children’s well-being, the NCH highlights two major studies which suggest that British children are afflicted by severe and worsening emotional problems.
The first, from the Office of National Statistics, says that one in ten youngsters between the ages of five and 16 has a “clinically recognisable” mental disorder.
Levels are higher among children from lone parent families and “reconstituted” families with stepchildren, at 16 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.
The study, based on a survey of nearly 8,000 children, also found that youngsters with serious behavioural problems were twice as likely as classmates to be regular drinkers.
A third of those aged 14 to 16 with “conduct disorders”, characterised by aggressive, disruptive or antisocial behaviour, admitted drinking at least once a week compared with 16 per cent who are not affected.
They were also more likely to have used drugs, mainly cannabis.
Overall, four per cent of youngsters aged from five to 16 had emotional disorders such as anxiety or depression while six per cent had conduct disorders.
In addition, two per cent showed hyperactive behaviour or attention problems. One per cent had autism, eating disorders or tics, while two per cent had more than one type of disorder. This equates to 1.1million children in the UK.
The second study, from the Institute of Psychiatry, showed that the number of teenagers with emotional and behavioural problems doubled between 1974 and 1999, the latest statistical group available.
Yesterday experts at the Nuffield Foundation, which funded this study, said major social changes lay behind the trend.
Dr Ann Hagell, the foundation’s programme director, said: “What has really changed over that period is the elongation of the transition into adulthood.
“In the 1970s, you could leave school at 16, enter the labour market, find somewhere to live and be married, whereas nowadays that transition can take 15 years.”
Increasing peer pressure, fuelled by social networking websites, may also play a part, she added.
“These days you can feel peer pressure from California or Australia through sites such as MySpace. Your peer group in the 1960s was your local community.”
The NCH, which used to be called the National Children’s Home and is partly Government-funded, claimed that unhappiness hampered social mobility.
Chief executive Clare Tickell said: “The lack of emotional wellbeing amongst our children and young people is undermining the foundations of any social policy to combat social exclusion, deprivation or lack of social mobility.
“We urge Gordon Brown and his new Cabinet to commit to tackling this hidden and fast-growing problem.”
The trend could be partly due to the “medicalisation” of behaviour and the growth of a therapy culture.
Behaviour which in the 1970s would have been seen as normal may now attract labels such as “depression” or “anxiety”.
However, the Nuffield-sponsored study found evidence that escalating mental health problems were “the result of real changes in behaviour and experiences” and not increased reporting of problematic behaviour.
Children’s Minister Beverley-Hughes said the prevalence of mental disorders among five to 16-year-olds, as measured by the ONS in 2004, had remained broadly unchanged from its previous study in 1999.
She said: “Investment in child and adolescent mental health services increased by over £145million between 2002 and 2005.”
Meanwhile figures from the Department of Health revealed that 673 youngsters aged 18 and under had such severe eating disorders that they needed hospital treatment last year, up from 486 in 1996-1997. Almost 60 were under the age of ten.
Anorexia was the most likely reason for admittance, followed by bulimia. Girls were significantly more likely than boys to be affected, though 111 patients last year were boys.
The NCH campaign comes at a time of concern that childhood is being undermined by the combined pressures of schooling and advertising.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is part of a coalition which has warned that children’s lives are being “poisoned”.
A Unicef report recently put Britain at the bottom of a table of 21 industrialised countries for children’s well-being.
An Unhappy Childhood Left Me Blighted
Alex Sykes, pictured, suffered from feelings of depression and rejection from age ten after an unhappy childhood growing up in care.
He was born to a single mother who suffered from schizophrenia and was taken away from her.
After flitting from one foster family to another, he was eventually admitted to a care home in Halifax.
It was there that his mental health began to deteriorate.
He said: “I began to hide myself away. I became depressed, which got worse when I was moved to a foster home at 14.
“My foster mother had recently lost her son and she was even more depressed than I was – I don’t know how she was ever accepted as a carer.”
He ran away on the eve of his GCSEs. After sleeping rough, he was granted an emergency placement with a different carer.
From there, his life began to improve. Mr Sykes, now 25, went back to college and moved to Bradford, where he lives with his 23-year-old girlfriend Helen and her daughter Chloe, aged four.