Why Gen Z’s mental health crisis will cost Britain billions

Gen Z’s mental health crisis
Gen Z’s mental health crisis

Only around 6pc of people are in touch with mental health services, on average. But there is a stark generational divide: the national average may be 6pc, but for girls aged 16, it is 22pc. For boys in the same cohort, it is 13pc.

Experts have speculated this could be because of much better mental health awareness in younger generations, as well as less stigma about asking for help. Others have suggested social media is having a damaging effect on young minds.

But serious underfunding in mental health services has exacerbated the problem. The number of children and young people in contact with mental health services from 2016 to the end of last year grew at almost four times the pace of the NHS’ psychiatry workforce, according to the British Medical Association.

Without intervention, the NHS thinks that there could be a 15,800 shortfall in mental health nurses in just over a decade.

Meanwhile, the children and young people who need help today will eventually graduate into the workforce – and experts are warning that failure to provide them with proper support could end up costing the economy billions more in the long run.

Around a third of the new personal independence payments, or “PIP”, claims are for mental or behavioural conditions. Of claimants under 25, that figure rises to 70pc, according to analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think tank.

For thousands of these young people, crippling depression or anxiety means they cannot leave their home. But Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, has declared the Government will crack down on how easy it is for people in these conditions to apply for state support.

Around one in seven of those claiming incapacity benefits qualify under a category for those at “substantial risk” to their mental health, which Mr Stride told The Times had “gone beyond the original intent”.

Ministers argue the pandemic-driven switch to remote working allows vulnerable people to take up jobs that would have been impossible a decade ago.

Yet Britain’s long-term sick problem can be traced back to pandemic-era changes. In 2019, around 965,000 working-age people were classed as economically inactive because of depression, bad nerves or anxiety. Today it is more than 1.3 million, according to the Office for National Statistics.

In the first three months of this year, 315,000 people said depression or anxiety was their main reason for being unable to work. A further 320,000 cited other mental illnesses or phobias, and an additional 1 million identified depression or anxiety was their secondary reason for being unable to work.

This mirrors trends recorded in the wider disabled population. The prevalence of mental health and social or behavioural conditions has increased from 27pc in 2012 to 2013 to 46pc in 2019 to 2020, among those who report a disability.

The long-term impact this could have on the nations’ health and finances is a glaring red flag for the Government’s spending watchdog. The Office for Budget Responsibility warned this summer the trajectory for inactivity due to long-term sickness over the coming years could “represent the difference between the Government meeting its target of getting debt falling by a comfortable margin, or finding itself far off track”.

The costs will hit employers, too. Poor mental health among workers manifests in absenteeism, high turnover, and presenteeism – the idea that staff are less productive if they show up to work ill. Together, this is expected to cost the public sector more than £10bn and the private sector £46bn, according to research from the consultancy Deloitte. This marks an increase of 25pc compared with 2019.

Turnover is perhaps the most conspicuous – and staff giving up on their work entirely because of mental health issues has become increasingly common. Around two-fifths of turnover is now attributable to mental health issues, Deloitte found. Yet presenteeism is the heaviest cost, at an estimated £28bn in 2021, around four times the cost of absenteeism.

Elizabeth Hampson, of the firm, said employers had become increasingly responsible for providing support for the mental wellbeing of their staff. “Since the pandemic, more companies are offering help with private health insurance or increased mental health support, often at the behest of their employees,” she said.

“This is something they will have to maintain in the long-term. If you look at the mental health of young people and children, it is really shocking. We have seen research that shows they are 60 per cent more likely to report a mental illness compared with 2017, and that will have an impact on their parents too, as they take time out of work to care for them.

“Because of this rise in mental health conditions we expect a large impact on the workforce. We should be seeing an increasing focus on employers on this – training their managers and figuring out what young employees need when they join the workplace for the first time.”

Andrew Berrie, of the mental health charity Mind, added that for many employers discussing mental health could seem like a daunting task.

Around a third of adults never speak about their psychological well being, the charity found. “It can start with simple conversations,” he said.

“But avoid making assumptions. Don’t try to guess what symptoms a co-worker might have and how these might affect their life or their ability to do their job – many people are able to manage their condition and perform their role to a high standard.”

These discussions, while uncomfortable for some, have grown necessary: the proportion of adults experiencing depression almost doubled during the pandemic. By June 2022, there were 1.23 million people waiting for their second contact from a mental health service, and more and more children are in need of professional help.

The NHS’ long-term plan has already set out a route to seriously boosting the number of staff working in mental health, primary and community care, by as much as 73pc by 2036/37.

Mental health staff – both psychological professions and mental health and learning disability nurses – are forecast to rise the most, with increases of 140–160pc and 110–120pc respectively.

But with at least two general elections before the end of the NHS’ long term plan, there is no guarantee mental health services will grow reliably, and the trajectory for rates of mental illness continue to point upwards.

This is “a legitimate concern about the pressures on public services”, the IFS warned this summer, especially as early mental health conditions have acted as a strong predictor for health in later life.

“The fact that mental health issues and inequalities have been increasing so rapidly in younger cohorts means that, if unchecked, there are likely to be wider inequalities in physical health and disability for these cohorts in the future, later in their lives, than we have documented for their predecessors,” the think tank found.

Rapidly rising rates of mental illness therefore suggest serious and growing costs in the future: a government survey found that 18pc of children aged between seven and 16 had a probable mental disorder in 2022, up from 12pc in 2012. Among those aged between 17 and 19, it had risen from 10pc to 26pc.

Meanwhile, Britain is becoming less happy with each passing year: it fell to 19th place on the United Nations’ world happiness ranking in 2022, from 18th in 2021 and 13th in 2020.

Unless effectively addressed, the nation’s declining mental health will eat away at public finances, its productivity, and its wellbeing.

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