Survey of children's and young people's mental health supports need for early intervention

A landmark survey has delivered reliable prevalence estimates of the rates of mental health problems in children and young people in Northern Ireland.

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12.6 per cent of children and young people in Northern Ireland experience common mood disorders such as anxiety and depression - around 25 per cent higher than in other UK nations, reflecting a similar trend in adults here, according to the Northern Ireland Youth Wellbeing Survey.

However, in general, rates across a range of mental health problems in Northern Ireland, are broadly in line with international studies. There are also positive findings with levels of  prosocial behaviour – such as being considerate, helping and sharing, and having good relationships with peers, emerging as considerably higher here than in other UK nations.  

A wide range of child, family and socioeconomic factors are known to be associated with increased levels of depression and anxiety. In the Northern Ireland Youth Wellbeing Survey, exposure to family trauma and adversity, poor child health and disability, having special educational needs, living in a household in receipt of social security benefits and parental mental health, were the strongest predictors for having a common mood or anxiety disorder.

Child age was also a strong predictor of increased mental health problems, with older children, in particular older teenage girls having the highest rates of anxiety and depression. However, rates were also particularly high for young boys aged 5-10 years old, highlighting this as area for further study and service development.

Health Minister Robin Swann said: “The findings of this survey will ensure a more rigorous understanding of the needs of our population. We know that further sustained investment in children’s mental health is needed, and this is why the launch of the Prevalence Study today is so timely.

“Its findings will inform the longer term strategic priorities and investment profile for mental health services, as development of the new 10 year Mental Health Strategy gets underway.”

Previous studies also show that half of adult mental disorders develop before the age of 18 so it is vitally important to ensure the right services are in place to address and stem emerging mental health needs in young people. 

Dr Lisa Bunting, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Queen’s said, “Queen’s University, Ulster University and the Mental Health Foundation have had the amazing opportunity to work with the Health and Social Care Board to fill a major gap in the evidence base which underpins the provision of mental health services for children and young people. For the first time ever, the Youth Wellbeing Survey provides reliable data on the mental health problems children and young people in Northern Ireland experience, as well as a range of factors which increase the likelihood that these problems will develop.

"We look forward to continuing to work with the Board and other stakeholders in the future to make sure that the survey findings contribute to meaningful change and improvements in how we meet the needs of vulnerable young people in emotional distress.”

Marie Roulston, Social Care Director, Health and Social Care Board said, “It is not often that the Board is in a position to undertake an exercise of this scale and significance. This study will have major relevance for everyone engaged in addressing the mental health of children, parents and families not only in health and social care but across a wide range of organisations and sectors across Northern Ireland and beyond. The funding from the Department enabled a longstanding objective of the Board to be finally addressed and it is with great satisfaction that we recognise a study which provides reliable findings, including elements not previously researched anywhere, that will be highly valuable in informing decisions on policy, service planning and developments for several years to come.

The influence of social media, the internet and cyber bullying was also examined as part of this survey. 4.7 per cent of 11-19 year olds in Northern Ireland met the criteria for problematic social media use with incidences higher among girls and teenagers.

Dr Peter Taylor, Senior Clinical Lecturer and Clinical Psychologist, University of Manchester and member of International advisory Board for the study said, “This report represents an important landmark in capturing the mental health needs and challenges faced by young people living in Northern Ireland. By better understanding these needs and difficulties, we can then work to better support young people who are struggling."

The Youth Wellbeing Survey was commissioned by the Health and Social Care Board, from Transformation funding from the Department of Health. The survey and report was compiled by Ulster University, Queen’s University Belfast, and the Mental Health Foundation over 18 months.

The study collected data from more than 3,000 children and young people in Northern Ireland, and on more than 2,800 parents and caregivers.

Find the full Youth Wellbeing Prevalence Survey here and the young person's version here.

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