The growing concern over girls and young women’s mental health
October 24, 2016
Andy Bell, Deputy Chief Executive at the Centre for Mental Health
The recently published government survey of adult mental health and wellbeing in England  brought into sharp focus a growing concern about the mental health of teenage girls and young women.
The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey is conducted every seven years and is the biggest and most reliable survey of the mental health of the adult population of England. The 2014 survey showed a pronounced increase in rates of poor mental health among women aged 16-24, with some 28% having a mental health problem of any kind, nearly 20% disclosing self-harm and more than 12% showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
These results follow a number of surveys of teenage girls and young women that have also shown rising levels of poor mental health which are not evident among young men. In a recent comprehensive review of evidence about children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing , Centre for Mental Health noted that these concerns were being expressed widely and that reliable, relevant help for young women was often not available despite the overwhelming evidence about the human and economic benefits of early intervention.
While data about the mental health of children and young people is not yet available to match the adult survey results, a similar survey is being undertaken this year and it is likely that a rise in poor wellbeing will be seen among teenage girls under 16. This will be crucial to ensure that interventions that can address emerging mental health difficulties are made available at the earliest opportunity and that all public services working with girls, young women and families are alert to the signs of poor mental health and knowledgeable about how to respond helpfully.
What is very clear from existing data, however, is that inequalities in mental health begin early in life and that prolonged exposure to the major risk factors dramatically increases the chances of a young person experiencing poor mental health and reduced life chances. Risks for poor mental health include poverty, parental mental illness or substance misuse, experiences of abuse, maltreatment or neglect, bullying and physical health problems or disabilities. A Centre for Mental Health study of young women involved in gangs , for example, found that multiple health and social difficulties were the norm among this group: on average the young women had eight major risk factors for poor mental health.
It is vital that the reasons for the apparent upsurge in poor mental health among young women are investigated and understood. We also need to explore how to offer better and speedier help for girls and young women when they or their families seek it, and to focus especially on those least likely to get the help they need. On average there is a decade of delay between the first signs of mental health difficulty and the receipt of any support  in which time opportunities to intervene have too often been missed and mental health problems have escalated to the point of crisis.
Government funding has now been identified for improving and extending both children’s and adult mental health services during this Parliament. It is vital that these funds are used to rebalance the NHS to have a greater focus on mental health and to prioritise evidence-based earlier intervention.
And it should start with the voices of people with experience of poor mental health and their views about what would be helpful to secure quicker and more relevant help. This is a rare opportunity to invest in better mental health support that we must not miss.