One in four young people who spent their adolescence in the shadow of Covid now has a mental health disorder, new data suggests.
The figure has risen from one in six in just one year.
The data from NHS Digital examines the impact of repeated lockdowns, school closures, and attempts to adjust to a “new normal” during the pandemic.
Experts said the crisis had now become “a national emergency” - saying that Britain’s response to Covid had caused a profound “shock to the system” of young people at a formative age.
Before the pandemic, one in ten young people aged 17 to 19 was classed as having a “probable mental disorder”.
Last year it rose to one in six, with latest data for 2022 showing a figure of one in four.
Boys in primary school hit hard
The NHS Digital data also shows that young boys of primary school age have been hit particularly hard - with one in five aged seven to 10 now suffering psychological distress, along with one in ten girls.
The findings draw on a sample of 2,866 children and young people who are now aged between seven and 24 years old, while information was also provided by parents for children aged seven to 16.
It shows that 25.7 per cent of those aged 17 to 19 now have a “probable mental disorder” - up from 17.4 per cent in a year.
The figures are highest among older girls, with 33.1 per cent of those aged 17 to 19 likely to have such problems, against 18.7 per cent of boys this age.
They show around one in five children aged between 11 to 16 had a mental health disorder - with rates higher in girls. In total 22 per cent of girls this age were classed as having a probable mental disorder, along with 18.8 per cent of boys.
However, among younger children, boys fare worse - with rates twice the rate. In total, 19.7 per cent of boys aged seven to 10 were classed as having a probable mental health disorder. This compares with 10.5 per cent of girls the same age.
The survey asked children and parents a wide range of questions, to try to detect signs of psychological distress.
Participants were then classed as whether or not they were likely to be suffering from such disorders - which include anxiety, depression and conditions such as ADHD.
Figures for those aged 17-19 'deeply worrying'
Among those aged 17 to 24, 18.4 per cent of young people aged 17 to 24 reported at least two psychotic experiences.
And 12.6 per cent of young people aged 17 to 22 reported often or always feeling lonely.
The survey, commissioned by NHS Digital, was carried out earlier this year by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the National Centre for Social Research, University of Cambridge and University of Exeter.
Dr Tamsin Newlove-Delgado, one of the research authors, of the University of Exeter, said: “When we think about the general environment that they've been living in, there's obviously the impact of Covid-19 which had a shock to the system, in terms of impacts on people's education, family, home lives socialising.
“And in particular, when you think about the 17 to 19 year olds or the older teenagers, this age range is one where it's often quite a time of stressful change, moving from childhood to adulthood. This life stage is already stressful; these young people will have been going through those changes during Covid, and all its uncertainties.”
Tamsin Ford, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Honorary Consultant at Cambridge and Peterborough Foundation Trust, said: “There has been a sustained deterioration... we should be particularly worried about primary school age boys and young women.”
Sophie Corlett, Interim CEO for charity Mind said the figures for those aged 17 to 19 were “deeply worrying”.
High rates of eating problems
She also highlighted high rates of mental health problems among those aged seven to 16, where one in six have a probable disorder.
“An entire cohort have remained in heightened states of distress for years following the educational, social and economic upheaval of Covid-19,” she warned.
“We cannot continue to watch young people’s mental health needs increase without seeing action. The UK Government will be failing an entire generation unless it prioritises investment in young people’s mental health services, and specifically funds mental health hubs for young people," she said.
“Young people and their families cannot be sidelined any longer by the Government, who need to prioritise the crisis in youth mental health as a matter of national emergency.”
The research also showed high rates of possible eating problems.
Three-quarters of young women aged 17 to 19 were classed in such a category - which experts stressed does not mean they have an eating disorder.
The figure of 75.9 per cent is little changed from last year, when it was 76.4 per cent, but up from 60.5 per cent in 2017.
Among girls aged 11 to 16, 17.8 per cent were found to have such concerns - unchanged from last year, but up from 8.4 per cent in 2017.
The findings draw on a sample of more than 2,800 children and young people now aged between seven and 24 years old, with parents providing information for younger children.
Children and young people with a probable mental disorder were more likely than those without to experience bullying online.
Among all 17 to 24 year old social media users surveyed, young women were almost twice as likely to report having been bullied online (19.5%) compared with 11.3% of young men.
In total, 15.3 per cent of girls aged 11 to 16 and 9.8 per cent of boys this age had been bullied online. In this age group 15.1 per cent of girls and 7.2 per cent of boys said they did not feel safe online.
The research found more than four in ten women aged 17 to 24 have self-harmed at some stage. In total, 42.8 per cent of young women in this age group, and 23.3 per cent of young men had done so. This was the case for 15.1 per cent of girls aged 11 to 16, and 7.3 per cent of boys.
Children and young people with a probable mental disorder were more likely to report self-harm.
In total, 28.3 per cent of seven to 16 year olds and 68.6 per cent of 17 to 24 year olds with a probable mental disorder had ever tried to harm themselves.
Claire Murdoch, NHS mental health director, said: “These findings show the unprecedented pressures children and young people are facing and as a result, the high demand NHS children’s mental health services are under.”
She said the NHS was supporting over 689,000 children and young people with their mental health by July this year - 175,000 more than before the pandemic, while 55 per cent more were being treated for eating disorders.”