Teenage depression no longer on the increase

18 December 2009

The overall level of teenage mental health problems is no longer on the increase and may even be in decline, according to new research published by the Nuffield Foundation.

There was no rise in the level of emotional problems such as anxiety and depression amongst 11-15 year olds between 1999 and 2004. In the same period there was a slight decrease in the level of conduct problems such as lying and disobedience. This follows a 25 year period in which the rate of all these problems had risen dramatically (from 1974 to 1999).

The research was undertaken by Dr Stephan Collishaw from Cardiff University and Professor Barbara Maughan from the Institute of Psychiatry. The researchers analysed data on the mental health of 11-15 year olds using Office of National Statistics surveys from 1999 and 2004. The research updates an earlier Nuffield Foundation study, Time Trends in Adolescent Mental Health (2004), which identified a significant increase in teenage mental health problems and led to a Government commitment to fundamentally reform children's mental health services.

The researchers looked at the level of emotional and conduct problems as identified by parents. The main findings are:

  • There was no change in the amount of emotional problems such as anxiety or depression between 1999 and 2004 (these problems rose by 70% in the preceding 25 years from 1974 to 1999).
  • Parent reports of conduct problems such as lying, stealing, disobedience and fighting decreased slightly between 1999 and 2004 (these problems doubled between 1974 and 1999).
  • Researchers looked at nine different measures of mental health problems in 1999 and 2004, as identified by parents, teachers and teenagers. Of these nine measures, eight had decreased or stayed the same. The exception was the level of emotional problems reported by teachers, which increased slightly.
  • Although teenage mental health problems did not increase between 1999 and 2004, the dramatic rise in these problems prior to 1999 means that today’s teenagers are still more likely to experience emotional and conduct problems than teenagers in the 1970s and 1980s.

Dr Collishaw said:

“The level of mental health problems amongst UK teenagers, which increased at an alarming rate over the 25 years from 1974 to 1999, has now reached a plateau. What is not yet clear is whether the slight decrease in levels of some problems is the start of a trend in the opposite direction.”

The research findings are published in a Nuffield Foundation briefing paper, Time Trends in Adolescent Well-being. The study is part of a series designed to examine the changes in adolescent mental health over time and the reasons for those changes. Research published earlier this year ruled out a link between the mental health of teenagers and a decline in parenting, as evidence suggests parenting may have improved since the 1970s. Other research currently underway includes changes in the way teenagers spend their time; drug and alcohol use; neighbourhood and community; stress; and school transitions.

Download Time Trends in Adolescent Well-being: Update 2009 (PDF/501 KB)

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For further information contact Fran Bright at the Nuffield Foundation on 020 7681 9586.

Notes to editors

1. The research was undertaken by Dr Stephan Collishaw at Cardiff University and Professor Barbara Maughan from King's College London Institute of Psychiatry, using data from two Office of National Statistics surveys from 1999 and 2004.

2. The findings from the research are published in a Nuffield Foundation briefing paper,Time trends in adolescent well-being by Dr Ann Hagell. The briefing paper is available to download from www.nuffieldfoundation.org.

3. The research adds a new wave of data to a 2004 study by Barbara Maughan, Stephan Collishaw, Robert Goodman (who were all based at the time at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London), and Andrew Pickles (from the University of Manchester). The full results were published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and are also summarised in the Nuffield Foundation briefing paper.

4. The Nuffield Foundation is a charitable trust with the aim of advancing social well-being through education and research.