It’s Mental Health Week

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Here’s a very brief look at what the latest research shows us about the state of children’s mental health in the UK, and some suggestions about what we can do to improve it.

What the survey says

The first survey for 13 years focusing on the mental health of children and young people in England was completed in 2017 [1].

The last survey, conducted in 2004, found that 1 in 10 children aged 5-15 had a mental health disorder (either emotional, behavioural, hyperactive, or other). In the newly released 2017 figures, this has risen to 1 in 9. Looking across young people aged 5-19, we find that 1 in 8 (12.8%) have at least one mental disorder.

This change for the worse was largely driven by an increase in emotional disorders (including anxiety and depression), which for 5-15-year-olds rose from 3.9% in 2004 to 5.8% in 2017. Across the whole group of 5-19-year olds, around 1 in 12 (8.1%) reported an emotional disorder.

Gender and age

The type and frequency of mental health disorders is different across ages and genders and, overall, rates of mental disorders rose with age.

Boys were more likely to have a disorder among younger age groups, and girls were more likely to have a disorder among older age groups.  For the 17-19 age group, nearly 1 in 4 young women had a disorder, with emotional disorders (particularly anxiety) the most commonly reported.

It’s particularly worrying that, of young women in this age group with a disorder, over half (52.7%) reported that they had self-harmed or attempted suicide.

Early Intervention

The figures illustrate how mental health disorders can occur from early childhood, and that their prevalence increases with age, particularly for young women. This highlights the importance of intervening early to prevent the development of mental health problems.

The factors associated with mental health disorders in these statistics point toward environmental and social influences that can act as important risk or protective factors for young people’s mental health. They suggest that capitalising on opportunities to provide children with supportive environments early may be key for ensuring good mental health for all children and young people.

What can be done?

“Children think better on their feet than on their seat.”

This pithy phrase from is from Mark Benden, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health, and Director of the Ergonomics Centre at Texas A&M University, when he spoke to the TES.

The value of outdoor play and outdoor learning, getting out and about, moving their bodies and connecting to nature, is huge. In the early 1980s, a Harvard University biologist named Edward O. Wilson proposed a theory called biophilia: that humans are instinctively drawn towards their natural surroundings. Many parents might question this theory, after struggling to peel their children from PlayStation or Xbox.

There is, however, a growing uneasiness about the amount of time children spend indoors. Author Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder. In his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Louv tells the story of interviewing a child who told him that he liked playing indoors more than outdoors “’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

Many parents and educators are convinced that too little time outdoors, and too much time on the bewildering variety of screen-based activities now available, is contributing to the decline in children’s overall mental wellbeing. According to the latest Office for National Statistics survey[2] children in Britain spend just 16 minutes a day playing or exploring in parks and other open spaces. This figure, an average of time spent outdoors in parks, the countryside, the coast or seaside, includes excursions at weekends as well as weekdays. Among children in their mid-teens it drops to ten minutes per day as younger children, aged between eight and 13, spend more time playing outdoors.

According to the Open University’s OPENspace Research Centre[3],time spent outdoors in nature, increases life expectancy, improves wellbeing, reduces symptoms of depression and increases a child’s ability to function in school.

In addition to better physical health, teachers report improved concentration, better ability to focus and learn, increased productivity, better behaviour, and the fostering of more positive relationships between adults and children and amongst peer groups, when children are more active and spend more time outside during the day.

A study by the American Medical Association[4] concluded that, “Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier, when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the outdoors.”

Exposure to nature has a soothing effect on both children and adults, and can reduce hyperactivity, especially in those suffering from ADHD.

Basic biology plays a big part in this. Being outside in sunlight allows our bodies to synthesize Vitamin D, which is key in the release of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter regulating emotion and mood, and is linked with happiness and relief from depression. Lack of sufficient time outdoors puts children at risk of Vitamin D deficiency, because the sun is the best source for Vitamin D production.  Time spent playing outdoors is also thought to help relieve stress and anxiety by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain. A recent study in the UK found that even just five minutes of exercise in a natural outdoor environment can rapidly improve self-esteem and mental health and wellbeing in young people.

It’s hardly rocket science: children need time away from schoolwork, homework, schedules and demanding routines. Time to have fun just playing, enjoying life in the outdoors and doing something that makes them feel good.

[1] Survey of the Mental Health of Children and Young People, Office for National Statistics, 2016

[2] Children’s engagement with the outdoors and sports activities, Office for National Statistics, 2018

[3] Greenhealth, Contribution of green and open space to public health and wellbeing, Rural and Environmental Science and Analytical Services Division, Scottish Government, 2014

[4] Burdette, Hillary L., M.D., M.S.; and Robert C.Whitaker, M.D, M.P.H. Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation and Affect, American Medical Association, 2005.


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