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Study: Kids’ mental health and self-esteem can plummet starting at this age

The phenomenon applies to youngsters regardless of economic and family circumstances.

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A dejected girl being consoled by another.
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By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Children's mental health and self-esteem plunges during middle and high school, according to new research.

The phenomenon applies to youngsters across the board - regardless of economic and family circumstances.

Lead author Ioannis Katsantonis, a student at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “Even though this was a large, diverse group of adolescents, we saw a consistent fall in well-being.

"One of the most striking aspects was the clear association with changes at school. It suggests we urgently need to do more to support students' well-being at secondary schools across the UK."

The findings are based on nationwide surveys of more than 11,000 participants using data collected when they were 11, and again when they were 14.

Co-author Professor Ros McLellan, also from Cambridge, said: "The link between self-esteem and well-being seems especially important.

"Supporting students' capacity to feel positive about themselves during early adolescence is not a fix-all solution, but it could be highly beneficial, given we know their well-being is vulnerable."

Globally, adolescent mental health is in decline - fuelled by social media use and lack of exercise.

The Children's Society has shown 12 percent of ten to 17-year-olds in the United Kingdom have poor well-being.

Co-author Dr. Jose Marquez, of the Institute of Education, University of Manchester, said: “Until now, we haven't fully understood how universally poor well-being is experienced.

"The relationship between well-being and self-esteem has also been unclear."

The researchers used data from the Millennium Cohort Study, a nationally representative sample of people born between 2000 and 2002.

They then calculated a well-being 'score' for each student, balanced to control for other factors such as economic advantage, bullying and general feelings of safety.

Most were satisfied with life at eleven - but the majority were extremely dissatisfied at 14, the study found.

Sad black girl suffering from depression sitting in bed feeling worry and regret
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By that age, the well-being scores of 79 percent of the participants fell below what had been the average for the entire group three years earlier.

Katsantonis said: "This is a statistically significant drop. It goes far beyond anything we would classify as moderate."

An analysis of schoolwork, personal appearance, family and friends suggested most dramatic downturns were related to school and relationships with peers.

Despite the overall fall, students with better well-being at age 14 tended to be those who had higher self-esteem at age 11.

But the pattern did not apply in reverse. Better well-being at age 11 did not predict better self-esteem later.

This implies self-esteem seems to protect adolescents from what would otherwise be sharper declines in well-being.

Katsantonis said: "Supporting self-esteem is not the only thing we need to do to improve young people’s well-being.

"It should never, for example, become an excuse not to tackle poverty or address bullying - but it can be used to improve young people’s life satisfaction at this critical stage."

Schools could support this by celebrating students' achievements, underlining the value of things they had done well and avoiding negative comparisons with others, the researchers say.

The study also suggests incorporating more features that promote self-esteem into England’s well-being curriculum.

It stresses the need to ensure similar efforts are made across the UK. Recent studies have highlighted the potential benefits of mindfulness training in schools.

Other initiatives include 'positive psychology’ which teaches setting achievable personal goals and acknowledging and reflecting on individuals' character strengths.

Added McLellan: "It is really important this is sustained - it can't just be a case of doing something once when students start secondary school, or implementing the odd practice here and there.

"A concerted effort to improve students’ sense of self-worth could have really positive results.

"Many good teachers are doing this already, but it is perhaps even more important than we thought."

The study is published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.

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