Friday 21 August 2020 4:21 am

We are facing a mental health crisis among our young people — one we cannot afford to ignore

Ashley Seager is co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation
and Liz Emerson
Liz Emerson is co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation

The cost of Covid-19 keeps climbing. 

So far, the government is forecast to borrow £400bn in this financial year alone. Whether we like it or not, that money will have to be paid back — but the longer social distancing measures remain in place, workers stay furloughed, and consumers save rather than spend, the greater the damage to the economy and the more likely businesses are to fail or at the very least cut jobs. 

The economic impact will not be felt evenly. And while the threat of the virus was deadliest to older generations, it is the youngest who will suffer the hardest economically.

Under-25s are two and a half times more likely to be working in a sector that has shut down due to lockdown measures than other age cohorts. No wonder, then, that the number of under-25s receiving unemployment-related benefits rose by 122 per cent from March to July this year. 

And that is only the start. Our young people are losing their jobs, their homes, their personal relationships — and now, it seems, their mental health too. 

Alarming figures released this week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that one in five adults have experienced symptoms of depression in June this year. That figure is shocking enough, but it rises to one in three for 16–34 year olds, with loneliness, anxiety and depression topping the list of mental health symptoms. 

We already know that 50 per cent of all mental health disorders start by 14 years of age, and 75 per cent by age 24. We also know that, on average, people with depression throughout adulthood are four times more likely to fall into “NEET “status (not in employment, education or training) than the non-depressed population. They are also more likely to use health services, be in receipt of disability benefits, and — tragically — die prematurely. 

Having depression during early adulthood causes immense suffering to the individual and their family. It also impacts public finances over the lifetime of these individuals. Since the young will have to bear the financial burden of managing the UK’s post-pandemic economic recovery, it makes financial as well as moral sense to invest more in their futures, safeguarding their mental health so they have the ability to participate meaningfully in the economy and contribute more taxes over their working lives.

The numbers are stark. Recent Intergenerational Foundation analysis reveals that the government loses around £2.9bn in net tax contributions for each cohort of depressed 16–40 year olds by not investing earlier in the prevention of mental ill health. By increasing spending on depression earlier in life, in a way that halves the size of the impact that depression has on the likelihood of becoming NEET, the government could retrieve lost net tax contributions of £1.74bn per cohort. 

In short, earlier intervention makes sound economic sense as well as being a health imperative. 

As Norman Lamb, former government minister and now chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, puts it: “I have seen first-hand some decision-makers’ reluctance to embrace prevention. But the evidence is clear: if a government’s goal is to allocate resources as effectively as possible, there is no better deal than preventing mental health problems occurring and worsening.” 

While the government has promised to prioritise young people in future funding decisions, actions speak louder than words. Some 26 per cent of children referred to specialist children’s mental health services were rejected in 2018/19, while children had to wait an average of two months before treatment commenced in 2019. Shockingly, some children were actually removed from waiting lists during the Covid-19 crisis, such as those under the care of Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust. Since the pandemic hit, many have been treated as an afterthought.

We need these young tax contributors of the future — and that means investing earlier in their education, their employability, and their long-term wellbeing.

If the social contract between the generations is to withstand the impact of Covid-19 on our national finances, let’s start with investing in young people’s mental health.

Main image credit: Getty

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