Young people should be the main focus of mental health efforts (and your chance to use free flexible workspace for a day)

Young people are now more likely to experience a common mental disorder (CMD) than any other age group – a complete reversal compared to two decades ago when they were least likely to. And the economic consequences are greatest for those whose poor mental health comes alongside poor educational outcomes, with one-in-three young non-graduates with a CMD currently workless, according to new Resolution Foundation research.

We’ve only just begun – the final report of a three-year research programme funded by the Health Foundation – explores the relationship between young people’s mental health and work outcomes, and how policy makers should respond.

The report notes that in 2021-2022 over one-in-three (34 per cent) young people aged 18-24 reported symptoms of conditions like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder – up from one-in-four (24 per cent) in 2000. As a result, more than half a million 18-24-year-olds were prescribed anti-depressants in 2021-22.

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The rise in mental health problems among young people is not just a health crisis; it is limiting their economic options too. The report finds that between 2018 and 2022, one-in-five (21 per cent) 18-24-year-olds with mental health problems were workless, compared to 13 per cent of those without mental health problems. The number of young people workless due to ill-health has more than doubled over the past decade, from 93,000 to 190,000. People in their early 20s are now more likely to be economically inactive due to ill health than those in their 40s.

The Foundation notes that the focus on young people’s problems often centres around universities, where the share of full-time students with a CMD has increased by 37 per cent over the past decade. But the economic consequences of poor mental health are far starker for those who don’t go to university.

The report finds that one-in-three young non-graduates with a CMD were workless, compared to 17 per cent of graduates with poor mental health.

Overall, the report finds that a shocking four-in-five (79 per cent) 18-24-year-olds who are workless due to ill health only have qualifications at GCSE-level or below, compared to one-third (34 per cent) of all people in that age group.

The Foundation says that with education playing such a key role in determining the economic impact of poor mental health for young people, this is where policy action, beyond that focused on improving the nation’s health directly, should be targeted.

First, the report calls for greater mental health support to be available for those in compulsory education, particularly colleges and sixth forms. Last year, less than half (44 per cent) of children and young people in secondary schools or post-16 settings had access to Mental Health Support Teams, with this figure especially low (31 per cent) for students in post-16 settings like colleges.

Second, with qualifications providing such significant protection against the economic impact of CMDs, more should must be done to ensure fewer people leave compulsory education with very low qualification levels. The priority should be those students needing to resit GCSE level qualifications. Current resit success rates are woeful – last year, only one-quarter of those who resat GCSE English, and one-in-six of those who resat GCSE maths, achieved a pass.

Finally, the Foundation says that employers should learn from the success of tackling musculoskeletal problems in the 1990s and 2000s with a new focus on mental health in sectors where young people with CMDs, who report that the awareness of their manager makes a huge difference, are concentrated. With a third of young employees in the retail and hospitality sectors currently reporting mental health problems, better management practices and mental health training for employers in these sectors should be a priority going forwards.

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