New evidence is a wake-up call on the mental health of girls

New evidence shows that young people, particularly girls, are at increased risk of mental health problems between the ages of 11 and 14, which is younger than previously thought.

The evidence is a wake-up call to act early on the mental health of young people, and not to wait. Existing evidence suggests that by late adolescence (16-19 years), one in four girls are suffering from mental health difficulties.

These findings, released today from HeadStart, a £58.7 million National Lottery-funded mental health programme, show that the emotional difficulties of girls begin to escalate as they move from early to mid-adolescence. On average, their emotional difficulties increase by 17% between the ages of 11 and 14. This is in contrast to boys who show fairly stable levels of difficulties, even decreasing slightly over time.

The findings are from a 2017-2019 longitudinal study, the first of its kind, of over 10,000 young people across England as they move from age 11 to 14. Previous research has highlighted issues for girls in the older age range, 16 to 19. The HeadStart findings show that the overall level of distress reported by girls is higher than for boys; and that the gap widens between boys and girls in early adolescence, if not before.

Previous studies have found differences between boys and girls, with girls more likely to internalise their difficulties and boys more likely to externalise them, leading to higher levels of behavioural difficulties among boys. However, the new findings show that as they get older, the behavioural difficulties of girls increase to almost the same level as boys.

HeadStart is a five-year programme with six HeadStart partnerships working in Blackpool, Cornwall, Hull, Kent, Newham and Wolverhampton to improve the mental health and wellbeing of young people (aged 10-16) by exploring and testing ways to build their resilience from an early age. The study was conducted as part of the programme by the Evidence-Based Practice Unit, based at the Anna Freud Centre and UCL.

Professor Jessica Deighton, Director of Innovation, Evaluation and Dissemination at the Anna Freud Centre, said:

“This new evidence from HeadStart is a wake-up call to us all not to wait until young people show clear signs of mental distress as older teenagers – but to act early. This escalation is happening at a time of enormous physical, emotional and social change for young people, and can be heightened during a child’s transition from primary to secondary school. Such challenges can pose a threat to young people’s mental health, and if not tackled, may continue into adulthood.

“These findings show a worrying trend in relation to girls as they progress through adolescence, but they also highlight the start of secondary school as a period of opportunity to support pupils with their emotional wellbeing. Schools and families need to be ready to intervene positively to prevent problems from escalating.

“The work of the HeadStart partnerships in local areas shows there are tangible ways in which schools can take action to support pupils, and there is real potential for these approaches to be delivered more widely across the country.”

Scott Hignett, Head of Funding at HeadStart at The National Lottery Community Fund, said:

“HeadStart continues to improve our understanding of how communities can work together with young people to give them the tools they need to build their resilience and thrive.

“By gathering this insight drawn from children’s own experiences, HeadStart can help to shape solutions that will improve young people’s mental health.”

Examples of support within HeadStart for young people transitioning between primary and secondary school include Blackpool’s ‘Moving on Up’, which supports young people aged 10-11. This involves group work in schools during which pupils look at topics such as what support networks are available, friendship and problem-solving, to enable young people to ask questions and feel more confident and equipped about their transition to secondary school. In Hull, the HeadStart partnership recruits, trains and supports young people to act as mentors to targeted pupils as they move from primary to secondary school.