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Legatum Inst.: We must tackle the adolescent mental health crisis now if young people are to fulfil their vast potential

The UK should encourage greater parental involvement, support in schools and community-based networks for young people, drawing on the experience of Iceland, according to a new report by the Legatum Institute.

The post-millennial generation is uniquely well qualified to make a good future for themselves and all of us. However, it is also clear that they will do so only if we create the right environment for them.

If post-millennials are to benefit from the explosion of innovation and opportunity that our age is seeing, we need to recognise that the age of adolescence and emerging adulthood needs deliberate attention.

This attention needs to come from society as a whole, not just from government. To affect a generation positively, everyone—family, civil society, schools, government and businesses—needs to be committed if we are to make a real difference.

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Key Findings

Young people today feel optimistic about their immediate futures

  • 85% of 16-19-year olds, and 80% of 20-24-year olds, feel optimistic about the next 12 months.

The current generation of adolescents feels a strong sense of civic responsibility

  • Since 2010, young people have moved from being the least likely age group to volunteer for a good cause, to the most likely group.
  • 62% want to work for a company that makes a positive impact, half prefer purposeful work to a high salary, and 53% would work harder if they were making a difference to others.

Young people today are significantly less likely to commit crime, fall pregnant or experiment with alcohol and drugs

  • The last decade has seen a 71% fall in the number of young people sentenced for criminal offences.
  • Rates of teenage pregnancy in the UK have halved in the past two decades.
  • The proportion of 11-15 year olds who have tried drugs halved in little more than a decade; the same goes for underage drinking.

However, the UK is experiencing a mental health epidemic amongst adolescents. 

  • Rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70% in the past 25 years.
  • A major government study found that 37% of 14-15 year old girls have three or more symptoms of psychological distress.
  • A quarter of girls (24%) and one in 10 boys (9%) are depressed at the age of 14.
  • 1/3 of 15-year-old girls self-harm at least once a month.
  • Suicide amongst girls and women aged 10 -25 rose 19% 2012-15.

Changes in the use of social media and in family structure have had a profound impact on the mental health of young people.

  • 37% of 15 year-olds use the internet for more than 6 hours on a weekend day for non-school purposes.
  • Those living with a lone parent or in a blended family are twice as likely to experience mental health problems.

Post-millennials everywhere are pessimistic about the state of the world.

  • A ‘large majority of young people think it’ll be harder for them to get a good job than it was for their parents’ generation (77%) and also that it will be harder to buy a home (83%)’.
  • A third of all young people say they would rather have grown up when their parents were children. Pessimism on this scale is unique to today’s young people.

Between 1997 and 2007, Iceland demonstrated the value of greater parental involvement, support in schools and community-based networks for young people, combating high rates of substance abuse to deliver:

  • A 22% decline in being drunk during the last 30 days (from 42% to 20%).
  • A 10% decline in alcohol-related accidents or injuries (14% in 1995, to 4% in 2003).
  • A 13% decline in smoking one cigarette or more per day (from 23% to 10%).
  • A 7% decline in experimentation with marijuana (17% to 10%).

Commenting on the findings of the report, Philippa Stroud said:

“Today’s generation of young adults is one of which we should all be proud. Already, they are adapting to a world that is transforming rapidly around them, exhibiting a growing sense of community and responsibility, and a sincere desire to make the world a better, fairer place. In doing so, they are demonstrating a remarkable degree of creativity and innovation.

“But as this report also demonstrates, this generation is facing a unique challenge in the form of an unprecedented mental health crisis. It is clear that this is a younger generation that is under enormous strain, and in need of greater support. It is essential that we give urgent attention to how we can tackle the mental health epidemic amongst young people, by increasing the efficacy of support on offer to them, both at school and in the home.

“As a first step, we should see what lessons can be learned from the progress made in Iceland. Their experience suggests that parents who spend more time with their children are better able to support their mental health. We know that this generation has boundless potential, and the ability to lead us all in adapting to an ever-changing world. It’s time to come together to find a solution to the mental health crisis, and to help the next generation truly flourish.”


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