Lack of access to NHS mental health treatment has resulted in one-third (35%) of children, some as young as 12, resorting to “social media DIY” for help with their mental health. The proportion increases to nearly half (47%) of young people with anxiety and eating disorders or self-harm.
Today, nearly six in ten 12-to-21-year-olds say they are in mental health distress. Four in ten (40%) experience anxiety; nearly one in three (28%) depression; nearly one in four (23%) body image difficulties; and just over one in ten suffer from an eating disorder (such as extremely restrictive eating, binge eating and purging or vomiting).
Meanwhile, around one in ten say they self-harm (11%) and have behavioural problems (8%). Just 15% of the young people needing support say they receive professional mental health support or intervention.
These findings come from a major new study by youth mental health charity stem4. It was commissioned to mark Youth Mental Health Day (19th September), which this year takes the theme #BeBrave to acknowledge the increasing rise in anxiety conditions. stem4 warns that lack of access to evidence-based mental health interventions stops young people from participating in developmentally important activities. This situation represents a significant risk to today’s young generation’s current and future health.
Of the 1,025 children and young people surveyed, over eight in ten say they avoid situations so as not to feel anxious, with four in ten (41%) agreeing with the statement: “It’s better or okay to avoid anxiety-provoking situations than to learn how to tackle and overcome my fears.”
A substantial majority of young people (84%) aged 12 to 21 say that over the past 12 months, they have avoided various situations that make them anxious and uncomfortable. These include public speaking (40%), talking to people they don’t know (35%), going to school, college, university, or work (29%), making new friends (26%) and even dating (19%).
A 14-year-old girl told the survey: “I waited four months to be seen by CAMHS, only to be told by a nurse that I would have to go on a 12-month waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and if my parents had the money they should pay. I’m terrified of everything. Going to school, talking to teachers, and I’m being bullied.
“I’ve not been to school since December 2022. I even wrote to my MP to ask for help, who said to keep working with the school, who can’t or won’t help. It feels like no one cares.”
Dr Nihara Krause MBE, consultant clinical psychologist, CEO, and founder of youth mental health charity stem4, commented: “NHS mental health services lack capacity and school and college counselling services are overwhelmed by having to deal with increasingly severe mental health problems so that when mental ill health conditions may be starting or in the early part of progression, they do not meet current thresholds for treatment.
“Of these, anxiety disorders are often overlooked. Avoidance is a common outcome of anxiety since it provides immediate relief but maintains the problem in the long term.
“As a result, young people miss important developmental activities – such as going to school, gaining social confidence, or dating – experiences that build identity and confidence. At the same time, they are being deprived of the opportunity to learn how to spot and deal with adverse experiences and to learn how to face and overcome the anxiety and challenges they generate. Early access to an evidence-based approach such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) will help tackle avoidance behaviour, build confidence, and help intercept further negative impact.
“Sadly, many of these young people are unlikely to receive any treatment on the NHS until their symptoms are severe, and avoidance has had negative consequences. Those that do get referred will face a significant wait. What makes the current situation worse is that these young people feel abandoned, left to deal alone with their mental health problems, and they perceive social media as a main and reliable place they can turn to for help.”
Many GPs say NHS children and young people’s mental health services (CAMHS) are failing
Since the pandemic, demand for NHS child and adolescent mental health services has increased by 76% (A record 1.4 million children and young people sought help for mental health problems in 2022, rising from 812,070 in 2019. Unfortunately, levels of provision mean that treatment is only available to those presenting with imminent physical risk.
Demand is now so great that “The whole NHS is broken, but worst of all is the children’s mental health services”, a GP in the South West of England told stem4 in its annual GP Survey. Or, as another GP in London put it: “CAMHS is massively “oversubscribed’ and huge waits. I don’t doubt the doctors and teams are doing their best, but they need huge numbers more. Almost every referral I make is rejected with “does not meet the threshold”.
“These comments are echoed across the whole of the UK: A GP in Wales added: “CAMHS is a failed service. It’s not fit for purpose. They will not even see acutely suicidal children unless they have harmed themselves.”
Social media DIY for mental health
In January 2023, stem4 reported that 97% of children and young people aged between 12 and 21 are now on social media. As many as 70% say that social media makes them feel stressed, anxious, and depressed, yet today, sem4 finds that these feelings deterred only 7% of young people from using social media.
Today, young people admit to continuing to use social media apps even though they are concerned about possible damage to their mental health from content pushed at them by algorithms. Concerningly, young people with mental health difficulties are twice as likely (32%) to seek out social media influencers who openly discuss their mental health problems or who offer advice than young people with no mental health difficulties (14%).
This figure rises to nearly half (47%) among young people with anxiety, eating disorders, and who self-harm (34%). One in five (21%) of 12–21-year-olds with no mental health difficulty admitted that their mental health was made worse by going on social media apps and connecting with influencers. This figure rises to exactly three in ten young people with anxiety, eating disorders and who self-harm, and to over four in ten (42%) for those aged 12–14, indicating that there needs to be more focus and help for younger teens.
Dr Krause added: “These findings are positive in terms of young people identifying their difficulties, but very concerning in terms of how they are dealing with them, which is to either avoid the situation since it’s too difficult to face or, in the absence of real-life help, turning to social media.
“While peer support and self-help approaches have their place, given the unique individual factors that need consideration regarding the aetiology and progression of a mental health condition, with a lack of targeted and evidence-based support, a young person can unlikely experience positive change easily.
“Reliance on social media DIY as a strategy for coping with anxiety and other mental health difficulties is, at best, a lottery, since whilst some may access validated support, other young people are presented with non-personalised, random or generalised content, which will often be attenuated by algorithms ‘pushing’ further unsolicited content. In addition, people who are anxious seek reassurance and can become reliant on their online ‘checking behaviour’.
“Psychological theory and evidence indicate that anxiety behaviours can be helped in the long-term by learning to face fears, one small, supported step at a time. This is why we have focused this year’s stem4’s Youth Mental Health Day on what it takes to ‘be brave’.
“By providing a range of resources about anxiety as well as the rationale for why it’s important to stop avoiding, helpful strategies to overcome anxiety, and access to our free app Clear Fear, which uses principles of CBT, we hope to give young people the courage and confidence to face and overcome their fears so they can achieve their goals and ambitions and be the best version of themselves.”
To mark Youth Mental Health Day (19th September), which this year takes the theme #BeBrave, stem4 is giving schools and colleges a range of free resources, including ideas on how young people can navigate the many challenges they face while at school or college, and indicating ways to manage the anxieties that can arise whether young people are looking to build confidence to face difficult situations – or to learn to have the courage to fail by doing something new. There are also resources for educators on hosting ‘be brave’ assemblies and classroom activities.