Psychological distress in women aged 16-24 is at an all-time high, with record numbers admitting to harming themselves to relieve their distress, according to an alarming study.
Experts say young women are now a “high-risk group” and point to links between mental illness and violence or sexual abuse, and possible pressures from the rise of social media. This has prompted calls from researchers for more funding to protect the nation’s mental health.
The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity survey of mental health and wellbeing, carried out every seven years across England, reveals soaring rates of mental illness among young women, who are suffering from a range of common mental health problems, including depression and anxiety. Despite going to their GP for help, only 20% received treatment in the last 12 months, according to the study.
The statistics from NHS Digital show that more than one in four women aged 16-24 reported symptoms of common mental health conditions the previous week – a rise from 21% when the study was last carried out in 2007. Young women were three times as likely as men to report such symptoms, with rates of 9% among males of the same age, the figures show.
Worryingly, in this age group, reports of self-harm in women had trebled to almost 20% between 2000 and 2014. This figure rose to one in four in self-completed questionnaires. Often they were suffering from anxiety or depression. Yet only around a third of this age group received treatment, compared with more than half of over-50s who self-harmed.
Elsewhere, the study found 13% of young women had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – three times the rate recorded when the government-funded study was last conducted in 2007. Experts believe violence and abuse, including rape, was part of the explanation for the sharp rise in PTSD, but they also said a new screening tool may be detecting more cases.
Lead researcher Sally McManus says: “When I first saw the figures I thought it was a statistical blip. The gender gap in mental illness has become most pronounced in young people. These results were staggering, but similar figures have appeared elsewhere. The figures on self-harm are particularly worrying. The risk is that without alternative, positive coping strategies, illnesses will become long-term and entrenched.”
McManus said exposure to violence and abuse was the biggest predictor of mental illness. However, there was evidence that poverty was also a factor and there were possible links to social media, with a “selfie generation” feeling under pressure over their body image.
“I wish we had questions on social media. When I think about this generation now, the biggest change has been in technology. It is not all bad. It can be a good thing – you get access to like-minded people and find different treatment options. But not enough.”
It is a view shared by clinical psychologist Dr Miranda Wolpert, who is committed to transforming and improving child and adolescent mental health services as head of the Evidence Based Practice and Research Unit at University College London. Wolpert, who also leads the mental health stream of the Child Policy Research Unit, said work was still ongoing as to what would most help young people with mental health difficulties.
There are currently only four models of treatment: therapy; medication; behaviour modification or psycho-education (where people were given information on how to manage their own condition). However, she said interventions needed to be more targeted to the needs of an individual. At the same time, there needed to be a model that could improve resilience, involving the wider community. Many schools recognised that distressed pupils needed professional help and pilot projects involving schools and mental health providers were supporting youngsters in a variety of ways.
“This is not just about putting more professionals on the ground, but also increasing the emphasis on things to help, such as mindfulness. We also need to look at ways to tackle inequalities, as mental health difficulties are associated with inequalities and deprivation,” Wolpert says.
One woman hoping to make a difference is Dr Martina Di Simplicio, a Medical Research Council career development fellow, who works in the Emotional Disorders and Mental Imagery group in Cambridge and specialises in developing innovative early interventions for young people.
Di Simplicio says there is a dramatic need for better research into why young people develop mental health issues in order to base new therapies on evidence. “It is important to develop therapies with young people who find it difficult to access mental health treatments,” she adds.
Working in the “Imaginator” project, Di Simplicio, a psychiatrist and cognitive therapist, has co-developed a simple app that uses a series of images aimed at distracting people facing triggers for self-harm.
“Young people who self-harm can wait a long time for treatment. By immersing themselves in a positive image, they can feel some enjoyment. This can be enough to lift their mood. Eventually they can go and do the activity,” she says.
The project, funded by the Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care East of England, is still in the early stages of development, according to Di Simplicio, who is also using imagery to help young people with bipolar disorder.