Young People's Mental Health


Placing the issue in a wider societal context

Gregor Henderson

Gregor Henderson is the National Lead for Mental Health and Wellbeing for Public Health England (PHE). He has led PHE’s mental health response to the coronavirus pandemic. Gregor is one of the founding Directors of the Wellbeing What Works Centre and is the Chair of the Research Advisory Group for Place2Be, a national children’s mental health charity. Gregor is also an active member of the International initiative for Mental Health Leadership (IIMHL). Gregor writes on mental health and wellbeing and lectures across the UK and internationally.


  • A more targeted and proportionate response is needed to issues of mental health
  • Any analysis must take into account the wider structural and cultural context
  • In general, children and young people have coped well through the pandemic
  • Digital and AI tools can help in looking at and evaluating the evidence
  • We should look to our younger generations for future innovation

For a good, up-to-date surveillance of Covid-19 and its impact on mental health, and in particular on children and young people, take a look at Public Health England’s Covid-19 Surveillance Report on the impact of the pandemic on mental health.  This has been published roughly monthly since last September.  These contain publicly-available statistics, amalgamated from a range of sources as close to real-time as feasible. 

PHE also offers a psychological first aid training course for anyone working with children and young people.  It is free and available on the FutureLearn website.  By the end of March, around 60,000 people had registered for the course from across the world.  

Public Health England is interested in the whole population, across the whole of their lives.  That includes the risks and protective factors that influence people’s lives as well as the wider social determinants – particularly some of the inequalities and structural defaults that we find within our society such as racism, sexism and misogyny.  That makes this issue extremely complex, but we cannot look at the mental health of children and young people without taking into account that wider structural and cultural context.

The pandemic

There has been a lack of attention to the prevention of mental illness in young people, together with the risk and protection factors.  Before the pandemic, measurement was overly clinically based, focussing on deficits and symptomology.  Research on mental health was funded in terms of clinical responses and illness treatment.  Attempts to engage children and young people, whether in terms of policy development or in terms of delivery, were pretty woeful.

A recent PHE document on children’s and young people’s mental health states right at the beginning that available evidence suggests children and young people have coped well in the pandemic.  Life satisfaction appears to have been only slightly reduced and children and young people’s happiness appears to have been relatively stable.  There is evidence, however, suggesting some children and young people, especially those with certain characteristics and social circumstances, have experienced greater negative impacts.  So we must not over-estimate, nor under-estimate.

While children and young people have generally coped well in the pandemic, some have experienced greater negative impacts [SHUTTERSTOCK/ SAM WORDLEY]


There needs to be a much wider social and cultural response to mental health, which is more than just healthcare.  There are other countries that are way ahead of the UK in their attention to some of the key things that matter for a society.  New Zealand is looking at wellbeing indicators for future generations, attempting to judge policy responses against an assessment of the impact on wellbeing.  In Wales, the wellbeing of future generations is part of the policy and legal framework.  

Better partnerships are needed across, obviously, health and education, but also across local government, with the active engagement of communities, families and parents as well as children and young people.  I found it disappointing to hear the Children’s Commissioner talking about the need to have a counsellor in every school.  I am not sure that is the right response to the social, emotional and psychological development of our children.  I am lucky enough to work with the children’s charity Place2Be, which has developed a very sophisticated, whole-school approach where the culture and the ethos of the whole school aligns with the social, emotional and psychological development of the child, the engagement of the parents and the wellbeing of the staff.

Digital technology and artificial intelligence should be employed more.  Greater resilience in quality assurance and safeguarding are needed: looking at the evidence and evaluating it with digital and AI tools will help.  

Measurement has to be wider, and not just restricted to distress and deficit.  Research needs to be much more collaborative, more integrated, more multi-disciplinary.  There needs to be much more early intervention as well as investment in prevention, with children and young ­people at heart.

It is very encouraging to see the Wellcome Trust put several million pounds into programmes addressing the elements of children’s and young people’s depression and anxiety.

Lastly, I think we should look to our younger generations for future innovation.  People of my generation are, quite frankly, past-it in regard to understanding the contextual, personal, professional and social characteristics that young ­people face these days.

I am lucky enough to work for the Zinc Mental Health Academy.  We have 30 pioneers engaged in a nine-month long journey, looking at what they can contribute to mental health.  The activism, the advocacy, the encouragement and the positivity of young people in that group is quite astonishing.  They are building an initiative where 70 people from around the world will be spending a year concentrating on how to use technology (and digital technology in particular) to improve the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people.

The key is to understand the elements by which different people cope and adapt, as well as the way they build resilience through adversity.  I would want to accentuate the possibilities of pushing the boundaries of science and technology for good, in order to improve the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people in the future.