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The Rising Concern of Mental Health Issues in Adolescents

It will likely come as no surprise that there has been growing concern in recent years surrounding the rate of mental illness among young people in the UK. Indeed, as explained in The Lancet, the rates of mental illness in young people have risen dramatically.  In 2020, an NHS report found that the rates of likely mental disorders had increased compared with three years earlier. One in six children aged between five and 16 years old were identified as likely having a mental disorder. This is an increase from one in nine back in 2017. 

Aside from the increase described above, the likelihood of a child or young person having a mental disorder also increased with age and, in the older age group (those between 17 and 22 years old), there was also a noticeable sex difference, with a higher proportion of young women having a mental health condition compared with young men (27.2% and 13.3% respectively). 

These trends are worrying ones. They not only reflect the evolving landscape of societal pressures but also underscore the need for comprehensive strategies to address the complex factors contributing to adolescent mental health struggles.

Factors Contributing to the Rise in Adolescent Mental Health Issues

Factors Contributing to the Rise in Adolescent Mental Health Issues

The prevalence of mental health issues in adolescents is complex. However, several key factors have been identified as significant contributors to its escalation.

  • Academic Pressure

The pressure to excel academically can weigh heavily on young minds. In the UK, children are tested formally throughout their schooling, which can contribute to feelings of anxiety and pressure to perform. Academic stress is often associated with mental health issues among adolescents. 

Research in 2021 by the mental health charity Mind found that a whopping 96% of young people in secondary schools across England said that their mental health had affected their schoolwork at some point. Additionally, school had exacerbated many students’ mental health problems (78%) and punishments were given for behaviour that was caused by their mental health in 48% of those surveyed

  • Social Media Influence

The pervasive influence of social media platforms has fundamentally transformed the way adolescents interact with each other and how they regard their self-image. Scrolling through various social media apps mindlessly is often referred to as doom scrolling – and for good reason! 

Research has found that excessive use of social media can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and anxiety, particularly among impressionable young minds. The relentless comparison culture perpetuated by curated online personas can distort adolescents’ perceptions of reality, leading to unrealistic expectations and heightened feelings of insecurity.

The addictive nature of social media poses challenges to adolescents’ mental wellbeing. The constant barrage of notifications, likes and comments can foster unhealthy patterns of behaviour, leading to decreased productivity, disruptive sleep patterns and increased feelings of anxiety.  Research suggests that prolonged exposure to social media may alter brain chemistry, exacerbating symptoms of depression and anxiety over time. 

We must recognise that social media itself is not inherently detrimental to mental health. When used mindfully and in moderation, social media can serve as a valuable tool for communication, self-expression and community building. However, adolescents need to develop digital literacy skills and healthy online habits to navigate the digital landscape safely. Educators, parents and policymakers play important roles in promoting digital wellbeing as well as fostering critical thinking skills among young people. By encouraging open dialogue, setting boundaries and providing support networks, we can empower adolescents to cultivate healthy relationships with social media while safeguarding their mental health and wellbeing. 

  • Peer Pressure and Bullying

Peer pressure and bullying are significant contributors to the rise in mental health issues among adolescents, exerting profound effects on their emotional wellbeing and social development. Peer relationships play a huge role in shaping adolescents’ identities and behaviours, but the negative influence of peer pressure and bullying can have lasting repercussions. 

Peer pressure refers to the influence exerted by peers to conform to certain behaviours, attitudes or norms. While peer influence can sometimes be positive, encouraging healthy behaviours and social connections, it often manifests negatively, leading adolescents to engage in risky or harmful behaviours to fit in or gain acceptance. 

Adolescents are particularly susceptible to peer pressure due to their desire for social acceptance and belonging. The pressure to conform to peer expectations can lead young people to make choices that compromise their values or wellbeing, contributing to heightened levels of stress, anxiety and self-doubt. 

Moreover, the proliferation of social media, as mentioned above, has intensified the impact of peer pressure, with adolescents feeling constant pressure to project a certain image or lifestyle online. The fear of missing out (FOMO) and the desire to keep up with peers’ curated online personas can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and fuel unhealthy comparison behaviours.

Bullying, whether in person or online (cyberbullying), is another pervasive issue that negatively impacts adolescent mental health. Bullying involves repeated aggressive behaviour intended to cause harm, distress or intimidation and can take various forms, including verbal, physical, social and relational aggression. 

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) reports that a significant percentage of adolescents experience bullying during their school years, with profound implications for their mental wellbeing. Victims of bullying often experience feelings of isolation, shame and fear, leading to heightened levels of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

The pervasive nature of cyberbullying amplifies the impact of bullying as victims may feel like there is no escape from harassment or humiliation. The anonymity afforded by online platforms can embolden perpetrators to engage in hurtful behaviours with impunity, exacerbating feelings of powerlessness and distress among victims. 

Addressing peer pressure and bullying requires collaboration between schools, parents, communities and the government. Creating safe and supportive environments where adolescents feel empowered to speak out against bullying and seek help is crucial. 

  • Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic threw everyone into the unknown. It had a profound impact on people’s mental health and, unfortunately, teens were not exempt. The pandemic exacerbated the existing challenges of adolescence and introduced new stressors into their lives. It upended their routines, their social connections and their future plans, leading to heightened levels of anxiety, depression and uncertainty among young people. 

Lockdowns, school closures and social distancing deprived children and young people of their essential face-to-face social interactions. For many young people, school serves as not only a place of learning but also a crucial social environment where they form friendships, seek support and develop social skills. The abrupt transition to remote learning and the absence of face-to-face interaction intensified feelings of loneliness, isolation and disconnection among adolescents. 

This all added to an increase in academic stress and, for many, uncertainty as their exams were cancelled. The lack of structure and support, coupled with concerns about the impact of disrupted education on future opportunities, has contributed to increased levels of anxiety and pressure felt amongst young people. What is more, the digital divide also widened disparities in access to educational resources and support, which exacerbated existing inequalities. 

  • Family Dynamics and Socio-economic Factors

Family dynamics and socio-economic background play crucial roles in shaping adolescent mental health outcomes, exerting influence on their wellbeing, development and resilience. 

Research from 2015 shows that children and young people who fall into the lowest income bracket are 4.5 times more likely to experience severe mental health problems than those in the highest income bracket. In addition to this, the aforementioned COVID-19 pandemic led to a great economic fallout, putting significant strain on already struggling families. Children and young people from low-income households are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of financial strain, experiencing heightened levels of stress, anxiety and family conflict. Poverty and socio-economic inequality contribute to a wide range of stressors and adversities that impact adolescent health including housing instability, food insecurity and lack of access to appropriate healthcare and social services. Moreover, socio-economic disparities intersect with other social determinants of health such as race, ethnicity, sex and immigration status. 

Family relationships serve as the cornerstone of adolescent development, providing essential support, guidance and nurturing environments for growth. Positive family dynamics characterised by open communication, warmth and emotional support are associated with better mental health outcomes among adolescents. Conversely, dysfunctional family dynamics marked by conflict, neglect and lack of support can contribute to high levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Adolescents who experience family dysfunction such as parental conflict, divorce or substance abuse are at increased risk of developing mental health problems.  The adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have lasting effects and lead to mental health disorders and self-harming behaviours. 

In sum, the mental wellbeing of adolescents is influenced by a multitude of factors, including academic pressures, social media dynamics, peer interactions, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and family dynamics intertwined with socio-economic status. Academic stress, social media comparison culture, peer pressure and experiences of bullying all contribute to anxiety and depression in teens. The pandemic only served to exacerbate these issues. Alongside family dynamics and socio-economic disparities, it’s no wonder the risk of mental health problems amongst adolescents has been on the rise. Addressing these challenges requires comprehensive strategies prioritising support and equitable access to mental health resources for children and young people.

The Impact on Adolescents

The Impact on Adolescents

We’ve discussed the factors that influence mental health problems in adolescents but only touched briefly on the impact that this has on the various aspects of an adolescent’s life. Mental health issues exert a profound impact on children and young people which affects their overall wellbeing, academic performance and relationships in significant ways.

Overall Wellbeing

Mental health problems can disrupt an adolescent’s sense of emotional and psychological wellbeing, leading to feelings of sadness, anxiety and hopelessness. Persistent symptoms of depression and anxiety can erode self-esteem, diminish motivation and impair daily functioning, making it challenging for young people to engage in activities that they once enjoyed. Moreover, unrelated mental health issues may exacerbate physical health problems, increase the risk of substance abuse and elevate the likelihood of self-harm behaviours (including eating disorders) and suicidal ideation.

Academic Performance

The toll of mental health issues on academic performance is substantial, with adolescents facing difficulties concentrating, retaining information and completing assignments. Persistent feelings of fatigue, apathy and low self-esteem can hinder students’ ability to engage in learning and achieve their academic potential. Consequently, adolescents may experience declining grades, absenteeism and academic underachievement, perpetuating a cycle of stress and academic disengagement.


Mental health issues can strain relationships with family members, friends and peers as well as impact their ability to form new connections. Adolescents struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental health challenges may withdraw from social activities, isolate themselves from loved ones or exhibit irritable and volatile behaviour. Consequently, strained relationships may exacerbate feelings of loneliness, alienation and social rejection, further exacerbating mental health problems and perpetuating a cycle of social withdrawal. 

Working one’s way through the detrimental effects of mental health issues on adolescents’ overall wellbeing, academic performance and relationships needs an approach that addresses the underlying stressors and provides access to appropriate support and treatment. By creating a more empathetic culture, one of understanding and support, we can help empower adolescents to overcome the challenges posed by their mental illness and allow them to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Signs and Symptoms

Recognising the signs and symptoms of mental health problems in adolescents is vital for early intervention and support. While each individual may experience mental health challenges differently, some common indicators may signal distress or emotional struggle. By familiarising ourselves with these signs, we can hope to identify when a young person may be in need of support. Here are some key signs and symptoms to watch out for:

  • Changes in Behaviour: Adolescents experiencing mental health issues may exhibit changes in their behaviour – sometimes significantly, other times more subtly. This could include sudden mood swings, increased irritability or agitation, withdrawal from social activities or avoidance of activities, hobbies and interests that they previously enjoyed.
  • Emotional Distress: Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety or overwhelming stress may indicate underlying mental health concerns. Adolescents may struggle to regulate their emotions, experiencing frequent outbursts, tearfulness or emotional numbness.
  • Physical Symptoms: Physical complaints such as headaches, stomach aches, fatigue or changes in sleeping patterns (insomnia or excessive sleeping) can often accompany mental health problems. These symptoms may be manifestations of underlying emotional distress or physiological responses to stress.
  • Academic Decline: A noticeable decline in academic performance, concentration difficulties, frequent absences or a lack of motivation to engage in schoolwork may indicate that they are struggling with mental health issues that are impacting their ability to function effectively in an academic setting or that they are coping at school by masking their difficulties but are unable to sustain it at home.
  • Changes in Eating Habits: Significant changes in eating habits, including loss of appetite or overeating, may be a sign that there is an underlying mental health concern such as depression, anxiety or disordered eating behaviours.
  • Social Withdrawal: Adolescents experiencing mental health problems may withdraw from social interactions, isolate themselves from friends and family, or exhibit reluctance to participate in group activities. They may express feelings of loneliness, alienation or a sense of not belonging.
  • Self-Harming Behaviours: Engaging in self-harming behaviours such as cutting, burning or other forms of self-injury may be a coping mechanism for adolescents experiencing emotional distress or overwhelming feelings.

It is important to approach these signs and symptoms with empathy, understanding and non-judgement. If you notice any of these warning signs in an adolescent, it’s essential to reach out and offer support. Encouraging open communication, validating their feelings and connecting them with trusted adults or mental health professionals can make a significant difference in their wellbeing. By being vigilant and responsive to the signs of mental health problems, we can help adolescents access the support and resources they need to thrive rather than simply survive.

The Importance of Early Intervention

The Importance of Early Intervention

When addressing mental health issues in adolescents, early intervention and treatment are critical. By recognising the signs and symptoms of mental health problems early on and providing timely support and intervention, we can have a bigger impact on a young person’s life trajectory. 

Early intervention:

  • Prevents Escalation: Mental health issues have a tendency to escalate if left untreated. What may start as mild symptoms of anxiety or depression can quickly progress to more severe conditions without appropriate intervention. Early identification allows for prompt intervention, prevents exacerbation of symptoms and reduces the risk of long-term consequences.
  • Promotes Resilience: Early intervention equips adolescents with coping skills, resources and support networks that they need to build resilience and work through life’s challenges effectively. By addressing mental health concerns as early as possible, we can empower young people to develop healthy coping mechanisms, enhance their problem-solving abilities and develop a sense of self-efficacy in managing their mental wellbeing.
  • Improves Academic and Social Functioning: Addressing mental health issues early can have a positive impact on adolescents’ academic performance, social relationships and overall functioning. With appropriate support and treatment, adolescents can manage their symptoms better, engage more effectively in school and social activities and maintain healthier relationships with peers and family members.
  • Reduces Stigma: Early intervention helps break down the stigma surrounding mental health by promoting open dialogue, destigmatising seeking help and creating a culture of acceptance and understanding. By normalising discussions about mental health and seeking support, we can create an environment where adolescents feel comfortable addressing their mental health needs without fear of judgement or shame.
  • Enhances Long-Term Outcomes: Research has consistently shown that early intervention leads to better long-term outcomes for individuals struggling with mental health issues. By addressing mental health concerns during adolescence, we can mitigate the risk of chronic mental illness, reduce the likelihood of future relapses and improve overall quality of life into adulthood.

To summarise the importance of early intervention, recognising the signs and symptoms of mental health issues early on so that timely support and intervention can be provided is of utmost importance. With early intervention, the best possible outcomes in the long term can be fostered. Furthermore, early intervention not only benefits individuals but also strengthens communities and fosters a society that prioritises mental health and wellbeing. However, the issue often comes down to accessibility and funding. Early intervention for adolescents is often difficult to come by in recent times. Lack of funding and government cuts have played a huge role in this and waiting lists for organisations like CAMHS have never been longer.

Final Thoughts

In addressing the rising concern of mental health issues in adolescents, it’s imperative to recognise the multi-layered nature of the problem and the complex interplay of factors contributing to it. From academic pressures and social media influence to peer dynamics, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, family dynamics and socio-economic disparities, adolescents face a myriad of challenges that can have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing – and that’s without mentioning the hormonal, physical, emotional and psychological changes that all adolescents naturally face during this time of their lives. 

By prioritising early intervention and support, fostering resilience and promoting open dialogue, we can empower adolescents to work their way through the challenges they face with strength and ensure that all young people have the opportunity to reach their potential in leading the most fulfilling lives possible.

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About the author

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Laura Allan

Laura is a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher who now works as a writer and translator. She is also acting Chair of Governors at her children’s primary school. Outside of work, Laura enjoys running and performing in amateur productions.

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