How many children have mental health disorders?

21 December 2016
What was claimed

One in 10 children aged between five and 16 have a mental health problem.

Our verdict

This is correct according to a survey conducted in 2004. More up-to-date research is due to be published in 2018.

“One in 10 children aged between five and 16 have a mental health problem.”

Huffington Post, 15 November 2016

This was correct as of 2004, according to a survey conducted for the Department of Health.

It's the most up-to-date information currently available.

The survey found that almost 10% of children between the age of five and 16 in England, Scotland and Wales suffered from a mental disorder of some sort.

To be clear, that’s the number of children who were suffering from a mental disorder when the study was being carried out. It’s not an estimate of the number who would suffer from one over the course of their entire childhood. Over the course of their childhood, more children might suffer from a mental health disorder than were picked up by the study.

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What does that mean for children today?

We can’t say for sure how many children and young people suffer from a mental disorder today.

A more up-to-date survey is due to be published by the government in 2018. The Office for National Statistics and social researchers NatCen who will be carrying out the survey confirmed to us that this will look at children aged two to 19 years old.

One of the authors of the original report told us that it wasn’t possible to predict what the findings of the next study would be, although the proportion of children with mental health disorders was unlikely to have decreased in the intervening years.

Meanwhile, the Education Policy Institute says that, the “lack of up to date information has a serious impact on the ability of commissioners and providers to understand the current prevalence in their areas.”

If the proportion of children and young people with mental disorders was still the same as in 2004, that would suggest that around 835,000 children between five and 16 have mental disorders in Great Britain.

The 2004 survey had found no change overall in the prevalence of mental disorders in children between 1999 and 2004. That said, there was a slight decrease in the proportion of boys aged five to 10 categorised as having emotional disorders such as specific phobias, anxiety or depression.

What is a mental disorder?

Mental disorders reported by the 2004 survey cover a wide range of things. They included emotional disorders, described above; conduct disorders, such as oppositional defiant disorder or socialised/unsocialised conduct disorder; and other disorders such as hyperkinetic disorders and autism.

The survey involved questioning parents, teachers and children, covering almost 8,000 families. The researchers then assessed whether or not the child had a mental disorder based on answers to these questions.

Boys were more likely to have a mental disorder than girls

The 2004 survey found that over 11% of all boys interviewed had a mental disorder compared to just under 8% of girls. Across both genders, disorders were more prevalent among the 11 to 16-year-old group than those aged five to 10.

The survey also found that mental disorders were more prevalent among children with certain characteristics. This included being from: lone parent families, families where parents had no educational qualifications, or families where the weekly income was less than £100.

We don’t know the reasons behind these links though. In fact, the 2004 report goes as far as to say that none of the circumstances reported should be assumed to cause mental disorders.

Another source of data backs these findings up

Other figures from the Office for National Statistics found that between 2011 and 2012 one in eight children aged 10 to 15 reported that they experienced mental ill-health. This is roughly similar to the proportion of older children in the 2004 survey with mental disorders (around 12%). The ONS found that bullying and high levels of social media use were both linked to children having a higher level of mental ill-health.

The method used to calculate these figures was different from the one used in the 2004 survey. As the ONS says, they should be “considered an indication of the prevalence of mental ill-health”, rather than the last word on the subject.

Update 15 December 2016

We updated this piece to clarify the timeframe of the study and to include information from the ONS, NatCen and one of the authors of the original study.

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