Secondary school starters in 2021 more likely to report symptoms of depression

Compared to children who began secondary school in 2019, children in Wales who entered year seven in September 2021 were significantly more likely to report elevated symptoms of depression, a Cardiff University report indicates.

The briefing paper, which provides analysis of responses from two waves of the School Health Research Network (SHRN) Student Health and Wellbeing Survey, showed in 2021, following the national lockdown and the reopening of schools in Wales, 21% of children in year seven reported elevated symptoms of depression, up from 15% in 2019.

Carried out in Wales every two years, the Student Health and Wellbeing Survey is led by the Centre for Development, Evaluation, Complexity and Implementation in Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer), based at Cardiff University. The latest survey, undertaken between September 2021 and January 2022, was the largest response to the survey to date, with over 120,000 11-16 year olds from 202 schools in Wales taking part.

Data from the 2019 survey was collected just prior to the detection of COVID-19, with the latest survey being carried out two years later – and 18 months after the start of the pandemic.

Dr Nicholas Page, Research Associate at DECIPHer, who led the analysis, said: “Transitioning to secondary school is a period of potentially heightened stress and anxiety, and this finding could suggest that such feelings were further elevated for young people in Wales who started secondary school in 2021, following the disruption of the pandemic.”

Based on responses to the short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire, the analysis also showed an overall increase in the percentage of children reporting elevated symptoms of depression in 2021 (28%) compared to 2019 (24%). No change was found among boys, suggesting this rise was driven by increased rates among girls (from 33% to 39%) and a small number of gender non-binary students (from 61% to 78%). Children in year eleven had the highest prevalence of mental health difficulties compared to other year groups, with 36% reporting elevated symptoms of depression in 2021, up from 33% in 2019.

The briefing paper also explored changes in young people’s mental wellbeing and loneliness over this period. These findings revealed small but significant declines in mental wellbeing between 2019 and 2021, overall and across most demographic groups. There was also a small overall increase in the proportion of young people reporting they often feel alone (from 12% to 14%), but this was not supported among all groups studied.

Professor Simon Murphy, Director of DECIPHer and lead for SHRN, said: “These results, gathered before and 18 months since the beginning of the pandemic, provide important insights regarding changes in young people’s mental health and wellbeing during this time. While it is not possible to say whether declines in young people’s mental health are due to the pandemic or a general trend, it will be important to continue to monitor these indicators to aid COVID-19 recovery efforts in Wales.”

SHRN is a partnership between The Centre for Development, Evaluation, Complexity and Implementation in Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer) at Cardiff University, Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data (WISERD), Welsh Government, Public Health Wales and Cancer Research UK. It is funded by Health and Care Research Wales, the Health & Social Services and Education & Public Services departments, Welsh Government and by Public Health Wales. School membership as of 2021 includes all maintained secondary and middle schools in Wales.