Mental Health and Ireland’s Youth A Definitive Survey

Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

By Eoin Meegan

Taking the measure of our mental health was never more urgent than it is today. That’s why it’s good to see more people talking openly about their own mental health issues, considering that a growing number of people today have experienced a mental illness of one kind or another; be it depression, anxiety, or loneliness.

And it’s not only adults. Increasingly this is a problem that is spreading its tendrils into the lives of our younger citizens, with 58% of adolescents in Ireland being classified as having depression or anxiety outside the normal range.

When we drill deeper and look at suicidal ideation we find that 23% of adolescents have at some stage engaged in self harming, while 41% have had thoughts about taking their own lives. Behind these figures are real people and a situation that needs to be urgently addressed.   

The above findings come from My World Survey 2, a report conducted last year by Jigsaw (a nationwide organisation that works with people experiencing mental illness), in conjunction with UCD.

The survey found that levels of depression and anxiety had increased in adolescents and young adults since the first My World Survey, carried out in 2012, and (more worryingly) where depression and anxiety did occur there was an increase in the severity.

Another worrying trend is that a large number of females surveyed also had anxiety of a severe kind at some time in their lives. By contrast, levels of self-esteem, social competence, optimism and resilience have decreased, again more markedly in the female population, over this same period.

In terms of gradation the survey found that the trend at Second Level was for depression and anxiety to rise each year from first year to sixth. 

The survey comprised of 19,000 young people from 83 randomly selected Second Level Schools, including some Third Level Institutes, Youthreach participants, people who presented with disability, and from Community Training.

In total, over 10,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 took part, and in excess of 8,000 young adults under 25. Just as with adolescents, the survey reveals there was a significant increase in severe anxiety among 18 to 25 year olds. However, for this piece I decided to concentrate on the younger age group.  

When it came to questions about body esteem, resilience and personal competence, males scored significantly better than females. The reasons are not immediately apparent but could have a lot to do with boys feeling less pressure about how they looked, with the perception among girls that they had to live up to an unrealistic ideal, comparing themselves to images projected by the media; and perhaps body shaming was a factor too.

Girls also fared less well on questions of personal safety, scoring significantly higher than males on anxiety and perceived threats to personal safety, that is thinking someone was watching them or following them around.

By contrast, girls did better in areas of social interaction. For example, when it came to school and peer connectedness females scored better than males, finding it easier to make friends and gain social support from peers or a significant adult than their male counterparts.

This shows us that despite scoring higher in some areas than boys, girls were more likely to take proactive action by way of reaching out to others. This is a welcome aspect as when perceived problems are talked about they are less likely to escalate into something worse.  

In recent years independent research points to a link between prolonged exposure to social media and depression, ADHD, and other forms of mental illness. Over 96% of the adolescents questioned in My World Survey 2 reported having a social media profile or account, which is hardly surprising, and not an issue in itself.

The danger is in the amount of time people spend online, and what they’re doing there. In the survey 34% reported spending more than three hours every day on social media (considered too high), with girls being more likely to be in the upper time limit. The report also shows a link between lower levels of self-esteem, body esteem, and personal competence among those who spend longer periods online than those who don’t.

The worrying trend is that young people facing challenges may perceive online encounters as a benefit and begin to substitute these for real social contact.  

It is heartening to know that there are positives one can take away from the report too. For instance, the number of adolescents who consume alcohol has fallen since 2012, and there is a decrease in reported bullying. However, on the down side among those who do drink many reported problematic drinking, particularly males.

In addition, 15% of adolescents said they took cannabis, again higher in the male population, with many young adults admitting to polysubstance use, that is abusing both alcohol and drugs. However, the biggest positive was the dynamic factor that having ‘one good friend’ made. Adolescents who reported having one good friend (this could be a parent, teacher, carer or anyone close to them) tended to perform better at school, had less severe depression, and expressed greater levels of confidence. Notably more girls fell into this category reinforcing the tendency, shown above, of females to connect more easily.

We don’t really know what causes depression and anxiety, and any explanation will vary from individual to individual, and will inevitably entail a lot of complexity. Sometimes depression can be a response to external stimuli, but other times it is not and there is often no apparent reason.

This is probably truer for adolescents, as they transition into adults, but knowing someone is there whom they trust and can turn to makes a huge difference. Therefore, each of us in our own way should strive to be that one good adult to someone.  

The aim of My World Survey 2 was to profile youth mental health at a national level across the age spectrum of 12 to 25 years, compare that with My World Survey 1, and from the information seek to influence policy that will assist young people going forward.

It has been reported that 75% of all mental health disorders that persist into adulthood emerge before the age of 25 (Kessler et al, 2007) with many going undetected. Therefore it is imperative that we strive to detect mental illness as early as possible, and to help alleviate it, as well as where possible, getting to the root cause.

Overall, the survey provides a very useful and evidence-based snapshot of how the nation’s mental health among adolescents and young adults has changed over the past seven years. A disturbing factor is that the proportion of adolescents who reported severe and very severe depression had almost doubled since 2012. It also shows that girls tend to have a greater problem with anxiety, self image and confidence, but conversely, are much better at reaching out and making connections when needed.

From this we can extrapolate the importance of communication, and encourage adolescents, particularly males, to feel comfortable in talking about their problems. 

The unique approach Jigsaw take is that they consult young people on what they want and the kinds of services they would find helpful. This is done through their Youth Advisory Panel.

The adolescents who took part in My World Survey 2 reported that the top three stressors in life were school, exams and homework (in that order), and the most favoured ways of dealing with stress were friends, music and sport. This gives us a clear indication of what specific issues need to be addressed. Perhaps we could make school and exams less stressful and encourage more cultural and artistic activities.

Should education really be exclusively about sitting at a desk learning by rote? People also learn by participation; and art, music and sport are good ways of doing this, as they will facilitate natural interaction that will help build confidence and self-esteem.  

Jigsaw services aim to provide tailored community-based help for young people’s mental health needs. Here in the Dublin Centre they provide a free, non-judgemental and confidential service to anyone between 12 and 25 who may be experiencing difficulties in mental health or wellbeing.

To date, almost 125,000 have attended their courses nationwide. Just this year Jigsaw has teamed up with Lidl and the Ladies Gaelic Football Association to launch the ‘One Good Club’ Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing Programme, which will run for ten weeks starting in April.

Jigsaw are located at 44 Essex Street East, Temple Bar, Tel. 016583070. For more information on the Lidl programme go to You can read the full report at