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Understanding the surge: Mental health in children today

Now that Mental Health Week has come to an end, it is important that the discussion continues. Part of this needs to focus on the shocking rise in the amount of children with mental health conditions over the past decade. We must delve into understanding why this surge has been so significant and how it is being tackled.

What we know

The children’s society charity’s report into children’s mental health from 2022, shows that children’s happiness continues to decline. The statistics are stark:

  • In the last three years alone, the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem has increased by 50%.[1] 

  • In 2022-23, 8% of the 11.9 million children in England were referred for mental health issues.[2]

  • 50% of all mental health problems start by the age of 14. [3]

  • Almost 40% of 6-16 year olds have experienced deterioration in mental health since 2017. [4]

  • According to NHS research, In 2017 1 in 9 children had a mental health problem. Shockingly, since then this has increased to 1 in 5.

The NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health services (CAMHS) received a £79 million boost in 2021, to give children ‘access to significantly expanded mental health services’. Despite this, in 2024 there are more than a quarter of a million children and young people still waiting for mental health support after being referred to CAMHS in 2022-23. The waiting list continues to grow.

Children's mental health: understanding the surge

Why has the rise been so severe?

There are a combination of societal issues which have led to this rapid increase:

A simultaneous increase in screentime

Understandably, screentime is often used by parents to keep their children distracted, giving them a breather and easing stress. But research has linked excessive screentime to depression, anxiety and issues with sleep. A new study by the University of Alberta found that by the age of 5, children who had spent 2 hours or more looking at a screen per day were 7.7 times more likely to meet the criteria for an ADHD diagnosis than children who spent less than 30 minutes.[5] Screentime introduces risks such as cyberbullying, social comparison and a decrease in face to face interactions that are crucial to emotional development. Young children’s brains are rapidly developing and too much screentime could interfere with how they experience our three-dimensional world. It can be easy for a young child to learn new words and actions through screens, however they may then have difficulty applying this to real life.

Access to negative world news

Screens have become intertwined with our lives and children are able to access more and more information than ever before. Children’s exposure to the online world through screens has led to them being bombarded with negative world news.

Social Media

The rise of social media amongst our children could also be having an impact on our children’s mental health. The algorithms built by TikTok and Instagram promote trends that often encourage negativity, unrealistic beauty standards and suicide. Users can comment on their peers' posts without consequences, with online bullies often hiding behind anonymous accounts. Additionally, the constant exposure to curated and idealised images can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.


The pandemic significantly increased mental health problems in children due to social isolation, disrupted routines, family stress, and academic challenges. School closures and restricted activities led to loneliness, while irregular schedules and increased screen time disrupted sleep patterns and more. Parental stress, financial instability, and domestic tensions further impacted children’s well-being. Health anxiety, loss and grief from bereavement, and missed milestones also contributed to heightened anxiety and depression. Increased screen time led to digital fatigue, and access to mental health services was disrupted, making it harder for children to receive necessary support.

Lack of movement

As we found out in last week’s blog, movement is a crucial part of ones mental health. The World Health Organisation recommends a 5-17 year old should do at least an average of 60 minutes per day of moderate intensity physical activity.[6] Due to the increased use of screens and COVID closing sports facilities amongst other factors, physical activity needs for children are not being met.


Could a positive increase in awareness be the cause of the rise?

Awareness is also a key factor behind the rising figures of reported mental health issues in children. Over recent years, societal understanding and acknowledgement of mental health have drastically improved. This necessary shift has led to increased recognition and diagnosis of conditions that might previously have gone unnoticed or unaddressed.

The stigma around mental health is decreasing. As conversations about mental well-being become more mainstream, children and their parents are far more likely to seek help without a fear of judgement. Schools and teachers are now educated to see signs and symptoms of mental health issues, leading to earlier identification.

Advancements in psychology and psychiatry have provided better tools and methodologies for diagnosing mental health conditions. Improved diagnostic criteria has led to more children being accurately diagnosed with conditions such as anxiety, depression and ADHD.

Moreover, the rise of social media and online platforms has allowed for the spread of information about mental health, meaning that resources and support become more accessible. Influencers and campaigns have played a role in raising awareness, encouraging individuals to share their experiences and seek help.


[3] Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62 (6) pp. 593-602. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.6.593;




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