Skip to main content

The mental health pandemic: what about our young people?

The stats are alarming and the designated support services are creaking under the weight of the current needs of our children and young people. There are huge waiting lists for access to mental health services and it is a major cause for concern across support groups and charities.

In a recent webinar titled ‘Why Sports’ that was hosted by the charity MIND, the following stats were shared:

  • In 2017, one in nine young people between the ages of five and 25 had diagnosed mental health conditions.
  • By 2019, that jumped to one in six, with 50% of 14 year olds having been diagnosed.
  • This rises to 75% by the age of 19!
  • Scarily still, 14% of the deaths of 10-19 year olds are from suicide, which is the leading cause of death in this age group.
  • Between 2004 and 2020, anxiety, depression and self-harm have been on the rise. Over the past five years, A&E departments have seen a doubling of patients under the age of 18 years old with psychological conditions.
  • COVID-19 and the restrictions imposed on these children and young people has served to escalate these issues.
  • A report by Young Minds in February 2021 found that 75% of the young people surveyed said that the pandemic will have impacted adversely on their mental health and 79% said it would still impact on them as restrictions ease.
  • The UK’s eating disorder charity BEAT reported an increase in usage of 300% in April 2021.
  • According to the Children’s Society, happiness scores plunged for the 10-15 year olds during 2020.

When you look at the drivers that cause these conditions, it becomes increasingly obvious just where the pandemic has taken its toll. Loneliness is disproportionately impacting on young people (as well as adults) and trauma is a real challenge across the whole age range. (Home schooling, online/limited education/not being in education, training or employment, cancelled exams, social isolation and simply ‘just being a teenager’ in the middle age group is challenging enough!)

The ONS released the following stats around first-year university students:

  • 53% of new university students have been dissatisfied with the social experience.
  • 57% reported their mental health was slightly or very much worse.
  • 34% sought professional help for their mental health.

It’s not surprising when you consider the impact of living away from home, hostile communities, loss of social activities and opportunities, and fears for the future and the prospective job market to name just a few!

Fast forward … 90% of GPs and 79% of teachers agree that more help is needed with regards to children and young people’s mental health. University College London has done a survey to help determine what future needs may look like. Its key findings are below:

  • Young people are likely to have anxiety during the pandemic and going forward.
  • A further 1.5 million will need additional support, which could span three to five years.
  • The demand will be two to three times more than currently available.

So … what sort of help with their mental health do children and young people want?

  • They want it to be fun!
  • They do not like clinical terms – they want support in a non-clinical setting.
  • They want to be in places they’re familiar with.

So, as a sector – what role can we play to help?

There appears to be less research in this area but what we do know is that physical activity can lift self-esteem, improve sleep, lower the risk of depression, reduce stress and improve mood.

Physical activity has a role to play in the prevention and treatment of mental health conditions in this group but we need to proceed with caution, as even the young people recognise that the effects are immediate but only help in the short term – it is not the answer to everything.

The CMO guidelines were updated in 2019 and recommended that five to 18 year olds should be undertaking at least 60mins of vigorous activity per day, yet one in three within that age group are inactive. (One in three seven to 16 year olds weren’t even doing 30mins per day at the end of 2020.)

Sport England has just commissioned a Children’s Coaching Collaborative with partners including the Youth Sports Trust, CIMPSA and UKactive, who’s ‘Child-First Coaching Commitments’ will:

  • put play before performance
  • be child centred
  • create communities that are inclusive
  • be dedicated to development.

This piece of work is due to start in August 2021.

MIND undertook a stakeholder mapping project in 2019/20 and the key recommendations included:

  • involving children and young people with lived experience of mental health problems in the scoping research
  • supporting the sector in making physical activity mental-health friendly
  • conducting pilot studies to evaluate the impact of physical activity on children and young people’s mental health and improve the evidence base.

As a result, MIND has launched a Children and Young People’s Workforce Project and will co-design and pilot focused resources for the sport and activity workforce to support them to better understand and support young people at risk of or experiencing mental health problems.

The co-designing element crucially includes a young people’s steering group through MIND’s Youth and Voice Network, as well as running insight sessions with children and young people.

Coaches, too, will be surveyed to further understand their needs and challenges. (In 2021, UK Coaching found that 88% of coaches were concerned about the poor physical or mental health of their participants.)

We are sure there are many regional and local support groups running successful physical activity projects and we would love to hear from you, so that we can share your successes with our FitPro community.

Please contact

Contact details for the specific mental health charities included above:



Young Minds:

Children’s Society:

Where to next? Check out our latest online ongoing education – we have a huge range of CPD courses available.

Author Bio

Lynne Briggs headshot

Lynne Briggs has worked with FitPro for over 30 years and is currently Client Support for the MOSSA pre choreographed group exercise programmes. Lynne is also a tutor/assessor for Trained Academy and delivers the Active IQ Level 2 Mental Awareness course. Actively involved with MH1, the mental health movement for fitness professionals, Lynne has a passionate interest in mental health-especially the positive impact of movement and physical activity.