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One in six children aged 5-16 in England ‘likely to have a mental disorder’

The probable rates of mental disorders among children and young people has increased by almost half since 2017, England’s official survey into child mental health has found, with Covid and lockdown identified as aggravating factors.

One in six children aged five to 16 was identified as having a probable mental disorder – five children in a class of 30 students. This was an increase from one in nine children in 2017.

There was an increase in mental health problems among both boys and girls, but it was more pronounced among primary-aged children, especially boys aged five to 10, according to The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020 report, published on Thursday by NHS Digital.

Experts said the increase in mental health problems was “dramatic” and the report “extremely alarming”. Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said it “should shock the government into immediate action to tackle a growing epidemic”.

The survey came as the Guardian launched a series on the Covid generation, which found that members of Sage had warned ministers several times that children and young people were at risk of becoming a “lost generation” because of government pandemic policies, but they had been “brushed aside”.

The NHS survey found that although the increase was fastest in primary-aged children, the likelihood that mental health issues would be identified as a probable disorder increased with age, with young women aged 17 to 22 being most at risk. Researchers identified 27.2% of young women and 13.3% of young men as having a probable mental disorder.

The survey of 3,570 children and young people aged five to 22 in England was done in collaboration with the Office for National Statistics, the National Centre for Social Research, the University of Cambridge and the University of Exeter in July 2020. Researchers had two aims: to compare the mental health of children and young people between 2017 and 2020, and to describe life for that generation during the pandemic.

The researchers assessed different aspects of mental health, including problems with emotions, behaviour, relationships, hyperactivity and concentration. They used responses from parents, children and young people to estimate the likelihood that a child might have a mental disorder, classifying it as “unlikely”, “possible” or “probable”.

They found that children and young people with a probable mental disorder were more likely to say that lockdown had made their life worse (54% of 11- to 16-year-olds, and 59% of 17- to 22-year-olds) than those unlikely to have a mental disorder (39% and 37% respectively).

The survey found specific reasons why lockdown may have worsened the mental health of some young people. For example, 63.8% of girls aged 11 to 16 with a probable mental disorder had seen or heard an argument among adults in the household, compared with 46.8% of those unlikely to have a mental disorder.

It also found that children aged five to 16 with a probable mental disorder were more than twice as likely to live in a household that had fallen behind with payments (16.3%), than children unlikely to have a mental disorder (6.4%).

In a finding described as “deeply worrying”, children with a mental health problem were found to be less likely to have received regular support from their school during the lockdown than other children.

The survey also found that for five- to 16-year-olds, 18.8% of children from a white ethnic background had a probable mental disorder in 2020, compared with 7.5% of children of black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds.

“It’s very interesting to think about what might be going on here,” said Tamsin Ford, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Exeter medical school. “Other research has suggested that extended family ties – which are more common in BME families and which might be one of the explanations why BME people are more vulnerable to Covid-19, such as intergenerational living – could be supportive for mental health. We need to think about this to understand what’s happening in our population around mental health.”