More European adolescents are reporting poor mental health, a major new survey has found, warning that how authorities respond to this growing problem will "echo for generations".
More than 227,000 schoolchildren aged 11, 13 and 15 from 44 countries across Europe took part in the international Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study. It was published on Tuesday by the World Health Organisation's European office.
It found that adolescent mental well-being declined in many countries across Europe between 2014 and 2018.
One in four adolescents, for instance, report feeling nervous, feeling irritable or having difficulties getting to sleep at least once per week.
Mental well-being was found to decline as children grow older, with girls particularly at risk of having poor mental well-being outcomes compared to boys.
In around a third of countries, a growing number of adolescents also reported feeling pressured by schoolwork while the number of those stating they like school has declined. In most countries, school experience worsens with age, with school satisfaction and adolescents’ perception of support from teachers and classmates declining as schoolwork pressure increases.
The growing use of technology was also flagged as potentially problematic as it can "amplify vulnerabilities and introduced new threats, such as cyberbullying, which disproportionately affects girls", the report noted.
Over one in 10 adolescents reported having been cyberbullied at least once in the past two months.
'A concern for us all'
"That increasing numbers of boys and girls across the European Region are reporting poor mental health – feeling low, nervous or irritable – is a concern for us all," Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said in a statement.
"How we respond to this growing problem will echo for generations," he warned.
The report also highlighted substantial variations in mental well-being across countries which it said indicated that cultural, policy and economic factors may play a role in fostering good mental well-being.
Adolescents from less well-off families tend to experience poorer health and well being than their peers from well-off families.
WHO Europe called on countries to invest in adolescent mental health services and ensure access is "equitable", underlining that "too many countries/regions report that their national school policy does not include adolescent mental health".
"Investing in adolescence yields triple benefits, bringing health, social and economic gains to today's adolescents, tomorrow's adults and future generations," it argued.
The study, released four years, comes as children and adolescents around the world continue to be confined due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Martin Weber from WHO Europe said this year's edition "should also provide us with a useful baseline" to measure the impact of the pandemic.
"The data comparison will enable us to measure to what extent and how prolonged school closures and community lockdowns have affected young people’s social interactions, and physical and mental well-being," he explained.
Other notable findings:
- One in four adolescents who have sex do it unprotected. At age 15, 24% of boys and 14% of girls reported having had sexual intercourse;
- Fewer than one in five adolescents meet the WHO recommendations for physical activity — levels have declined in around one-third of countries since 2014;
- Most adolescents are failing to meet current nutritional recommendations with around two out of three not eating enough nutrient-rich foods, one in four eating sweets and one in six consuming sugary drinks every day;
- Obesity has risen since 2014 and now affects one in five young people.