Unfortunately, your browser is too old to work on this website. Please upgrade your browser
Skip to main content

Today’s young people have the poorest mental health of any age group in the UK, whereas two decades ago the reverse was true. Now, one in three (34%) people aged 18–24 are reporting symptoms of ‘common mental disorders’ (eg anxiety and/or depression). This figure rises to 41% for young women. 

Our young people’s future health inquiry set out to understand the experiences that shape the lives of people aged 12–24, helping or hindering their health outcomes as they transition to adulthood. So, what have we found?

Young people today are growing up in a world where it’s hard to secure the building blocks vital to their current and future health – such as money in their pockets, a place to call home, feeling supported and part of a community. With a tough job market, the cost-of-living crisis, lasting impacts from the pandemic, more expensive housing and a lack of community spaces, it’s no wonder young people are reporting higher levels of loneliness and poor mental health than other generations.

Not all young people are at equal risk of experiencing poor mental health

Poverty is a significant driver of mental health problems for young people and their families. Our Emotional Support for Young People programme has shown that poverty also reduces a family’s bandwidth to provide children with the emotional support they need to develop into a healthy adulthood. 

Surveys from NHS Digital suggest that children and young people from more socioeconomically deprived backgrounds are more likely to experience a ‘probable mental disorder’. Children aged 8–16 with a ‘probable mental disorder’ were more than twice as likely to live in a household that had fallen behind with rent, bills or mortgage (18.7%) than those unlikely to have a mental disorder (6.8%).

There are particular concerns around rates of mental ill health among young adults. And for girls and young women aged 17–25, rates of mental ill health are twice as high as for their male counterparts.

As part of our young people’s inquiry, we funded five organisations to explore how young people are experiencing the building blocks of health. The final report, We’ve only just begun (recently published by the Resolution Foundation), looks at the links between young people’s mental health, education and employment. It finds that non-graduates are particularly likely to have poor mental health and be out of work (or experiencing low pay): 79% of people aged 18–24 who are out of work due to ill health have qualifications at only GCSE level or below.

Ill health and economic insecurity form a vicious cycle for young people

Further research is needed to fully understand the range of complex, interlinked factors driving the youth mental health crisis. But evidence from recent Health Foundation-funded work gives important insight into how employment and economic insecurity affect young people’s mental health.

The relationship between mental health and employment is two-way, with employment influencing mental health and mental health influencing ability to work. Record numbers of young people are unable to work because of mental ill health: in 2023, people in their early twenties were more likely to be economically inactive due to ill health than people in their early forties.

Low income and insecure, poor-quality work are bad for mental and physical health. They make it harder to afford the essentials, cause worry about making ends meet and remove choices from people, such as autonomy over working conditions, shift patterns and where to live. The recent RSA report, State of Paralysis, on young people’s economic insecurity, found that the number of young people on zero-hours contracts has more than doubled in the last 10 years, and people with such insecure work are twice as likely to experience mental ill health by the age of 25. Experiences at this age can also have major consequences for long-term health.

Economic insecurity is also rife: only a third of young people aged 16–24 say they earn enough to maintain a decent standard of living. This creates a lack of agency, leaving young people feeling insufficiently supported as they grow up, with a sense of dissonance between societal expectations and their ability to take on adult responsibilities. 

What can be done to help?

The rise in both young people’s economic insecurity and poor mental health must be a priority for policymakers. Jobs and workplaces that support good mental health are crucial. There is no quick fix: action is needed across the whole of government to re-focus on prevention and the building blocks of health.

We can take heart from recent announcements, such as the extension of government funding for early support hubs, and Labour’s plans to boost young people’s employment opportunities and improve access to mental health support. But there is much more to be done across all policy areas to maximise opportunities to improve young people’s mental health.

Our young people’s inquiry offers ideas of how this could look: from better support for re-sitting exams, to pro-young people social security policies, to free public transport for young people. The Health Foundation’s Commission for Healthier Working Lives will also undertake new research, making recommendations for government and employers to ensure that jobs and workplaces support good mental health.

To successfully tackle the challenges faced by young people, it’s essential to centre their views and voices at the heart of policymaking. Ultimately, investing in the structures young people need to be healthy will not only support young people’s mental health today, but is an investment in our collective futures. 

Further reading

You might also like...

Kjell-bubble-diagramArtboard 101 copy

Get social

Follow us on Twitter
Kjell-bubble-diagramArtboard 101

Work with us

We look for talented and passionate individuals as everyone at the Health Foundation has an important role to play.

View current vacancies
Artboard 101 copy 2

The Q community

Q is an initiative connecting people with improvement expertise across the UK.

Find out more