Addressing social problems key to effective youth mental health services

New research identifies strong associations between mental illness in young people, ‘everyday’ social problems and disadvantage. Charity calls for NHS investment in voluntary sector advice services to address the ‘social determinants’ of young people’s mental health.

Groundbreaking research, led by internationally-acclaimed legal academics at University College London, has identified the key role played by social disadvantage and social problems in rates of mental illness amongst young people.

The research reveals much sought-after data on the prevalence of mental health problems amongst the young population:

12% of 16-19 year olds and 18% of 20-24 year olds met cut-off points for common mental disorders.
Young people who were NEET (not in education, employment or training) or socially isolated were found to be twice as likely as other young people to report mental illness.
Where young people also experienced ‘everyday’ social welfare legal problems (e.g. concerning debt, benefits, housing or employment) they were five times more likely to report mental health problems.
Social welfare legal problems were a clear predictor of mental health problems and longitudinal data showed that young people’s mental health deteriorated as new social welfare legal problems emerged.

Youth Access, the youth advice and counselling charity which commissioned the research, believes the findings have major implications for the way youth mental health services are configured. With the annual cost of mental health problems in England estimated at £105 billion and three-quarters of lifetime mental illness having its roots in adolescence or early adulthood, huge savings could potentially be made in the NHS budget by intervening more smartly.

Barbara Rayment, Director of Youth Access, says:

“This study establishes for the first time that housing, money and employment problems are key determinants of young people’s mental health.

“‘Future in Mind’, the recent report of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health & Wellbeing Taskforce, identified the importance of increasing investment in community-based drop-in services that can provide advice on social issues alongside therapeutic interventions in accessible young person-friendly settings for the 13-25 age group.

“We have a collective duty to ensure vulnerable young people get the services they need in the most efficient way for the taxpayer.It is critical that Clinical Commissioning Groups, which are tasked with leading CAMHS Transformation Plans in local areas, look beyond traditional clinical solutions and invest in services that can offer a truly holistic, early intervention response.”

Comments on the research from leading experts

Professor Peter Fonagy, Freud Memorial Professor of Psychoanalysis at University College London and one of the leading authorities on young people’s mental health:
“This is essential new data which provides a more nuanced view than we had up until now, on how young age and NEET status in combination with legal problems combine to create one of the most significant indicators of risk for the mental health of a young person. A significant step forward.”

Russell Viner, Professor in Adolescent Health, Institute of Child Health, University College London:
"This important work highlights the particular vulnerability of young people to the vicious cycle of disadvantage and poor mental health. Coordinated action is needed across government and the health and education services to both prevent young people falling into the NEET trap and identify early those young people at risk of mental health problems."

Ann Hagell, Research Lead at the Association for Young People’s Health and one of the authors of the report:
"The results from this work emphasise the need to take a broad perspective on young people's health that includes the role of poverty, unemployment, stress, debt and housing. Health is not something that sits in a neat box. And young people are being particularly adversely affected by current economic changes, facing fewer job opportunities, more vulnerable job contracts and difficulties in finding housing. We need to think what else can be done to support them as they transition into adulthood."

Sarah Brennan, Chief Executive of Young Minds:
“This research provides us with vital insight into how social disadvantage impacts on children and young people’s mental health. What is needed now is targeted action as this research makes clear that the more risks faced by young people the more their mental health will suffer. They need support before they reach mental health services and those services need to be designed with young people in mind. They need to be accessible, holistic and suitable for every young person’s needs. We must heed the evidence that this research provides and tailor services to meet this growing need.”

The full methodology and results are set out in a research report entitled 'Health Inequality and Access to Justice: Young People, Mental Health and Legal Issues'

An accessible research briefing entitled ‘The social determinants of young people's mental health', which summarises the research and puts the findings in context, is also published today.

For more information, a copy of the report, case studies and access to interviewees, please contact:

James Kenrick, Advice Services Development Manager, Youth Access
020 8772 9900 ext. 25 / 07535 344881;