The Office of the Mental Health Champion has published a new report, Factors Affecting Mental Health and Wellbeing in Children and Young People in Northern Ireland.
The research shows that 45.2% of 16-year-olds meet the criteria for mental ill health. It also reveals that the wellbeing of 11-year-olds has declined in recent years to its lowest score since 2016.
These figures are featured in the Young Life and Times and Kids’ Life and Times surveys for 2023, which were launched during an event at Queen’s University Belfast yesterday. Both surveys contain a section dedicated to mental health, funded by the Office of the Mental Health Champion. Questions designed to identify causes of worry and stress, as well as the supports and barriers to such supports, were also included.
High proportions of 11-year-olds had worries about relationships with peers, relationships at home and pressure to do well at school. Concerns about household finances were also a common source of stress. The same topics – relationships and finances – impacted similarly high numbers of 16-year-olds. Eighty per cent reported worrying about pressure around academic performance. This was double the proportion of 11-year-olds citing the same concern (39.1%).
More than one in five young people in both age groups are concerned about the fiscal situation at home. Whilst this may be attributed to the current cost-of-living crisis, significant percentages of people in Northern Ireland already live in relative and absolute poverty. Indeed, poverty and deprivation are well established, consistent predictors of poor mental health.
Several recommendations are suggested as ways to help alleviate the concerns raised in the report, including:
• A programme for government that prioritises reduced social inequalities and improved wellbeing for all citizens;
• Strong parenting support and programmes, such as those offered by Parenting NI;
• Full relationships and sexuality education in school curriculum;
• Full implementation of Children and Young People’s Strategy 2020-2030;
• Asking the Independent Review of Education to consider ways in which the education system can harm the mental health of young people;
• Implementation of the Children and Young People’s Emotional Health and Wellbeing in Education Framework in all schools;
• Full implementation of the Mental Health Strategy 2021-2031, including the Plan for Early Intervention and Prevention.
Speaking about the findings of the survey, the Mental Health Champion, Professor Siobhán O’Neill, said:
“Mental ill health costs Northern Ireland at least £3.4 billion annually and we know the most cost-effective approach to reducing the burden of suffering is through early intervention and prevention, particularly in relation to early years, parenting, psychological therapies and addressing bullying in schools. This study identifies the sources of stress and worry for children and young people and highlights the policy responses that are needed to address these issues and improve young people’s lives.
“Funding for the continued implementation of the Mental Health Strategy is vital so that our services can deliver effective treatments for young people with a mental illness. In addition, social policies which address poverty and inequality are necessary to reduce the burden of suffering as well as the economic cost of mental ill health in the longer term. We need a strong programme for government that prioritises wellbeing and recognises the value of good mental health. It is now vital that we fast track the implementation of existing strategies and policies, and reform the education system to prioritise children’s wellbeing and development, so that future generations can enjoy good mental health, achieve their goals and flourish.”