The Health Foundation: The building blocks of young people’s mental health

Jo Bibby, Director of Health at The Health Foundation explores what the building blocks of young people's mental health are as part of our series of think pieces on children and young people's mental health.

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The last five years have seen rates of a probable mental disorder in 17- to 19-year-olds rise from one in ten in 2017 to one in four in 2022, with young women aged 17–24 years especially affected. While greater investment in mental health services for children and young people is needed, it is also important to focus on the building blocks of good physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Young people are growing up in a world where securing these vital building blocks – money in their pockets, a place to call home and feeling part of a community – is more challenging. With an increasingly precarious labour market, more expensive housing costs and a lack of community spaces, it’s no wonder young people are reporting higher levels of loneliness and poor mental health than previous generations. 

The Health Foundation’s young people’s future health inquiry set out to understand the experiences that occur between ages 12 and 24 years that help or hinder young people’s health outcomes as they transition to adulthood. Through engagement with young people and voluntary sector experts, the inquiry highlighted the critical role local government can play in helping young people secure the building blocks needed for future health and preventing a further deterioration in their mental health.

Secure and rewarding work

Employment, or the lack of it, can have considerable impacts on health and wellbeing, especially for young people seeking economic independence. The relationship between mental health and employment is bidirectional, with employment influencing mental health and mental health influencing ability to work. With record numbers of young people unable to work because of mental ill health, jobs and workplaces that support good mental health are crucial. 

Low income and insecure, poor-quality work are bad for mental and physical health. They make it harder to afford the essentials, cause worry about making ends meet and remove choices from people. Research from the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) found that just a third of young people aged 16–24 years feel their work provides them enough money to maintain a decent standard of living. Young people are more likely to experience underemployment and insecure work than older age groups. The Resolution Foundation’s focus groups found that younger workers feel they are offered fewer, and less desirable, working hours than older colleagues.

The Institute for Employment Studies has highlighted the need for work that is interesting and fulfilling and combines flexibility with security. However, availability of good work is not, on its own, enough. Young people often rely on affordable public transport connections to get there and need stronger connections to be made between education and employers to support transitions from post-16 education.

Local government leaders have the responsibility and the levers to shape local economies so that good work is both available and accessible to young people.

A place to call home

A safe, secure place to live is an essential building block for our health and wellbeing. Poor, insecure housing can lead to worse physical and mental health.

Young people are more likely to experience this acutely. They are overrepresented in the private rental sector, with four in 10 people younger than 30 years spending more than a third of their income on rent. The RSA conducted research with young people to understand their day-to-day experiences and how these interact with economic insecurity. Young people explained how unaffordable rental costs strip them of their agency to choose where they want to live and who they want to live with, which takes a toll on their mental health. This is reinforced through government policy, with those younger than 35 years eligible for less local housing allowance and those younger than 25 years receiving a lower rate of universal credit.

Beyond affordability, the nature of private renting may also contribute to poor mental health in young people. Around 23 per cent of private rented homes in England were classed as non-decent in 2020 compared with 15 per cent across homes of all tenures. Private renters also face restrictions on decorating or owning pets, which can affect young peoples’ mental health. Rent hikes, short tenancies and evictions make private renters much more likely to move frequently, which interrupts social, educational and economic opportunities and is associated with poorer health outcomes. 

Councils have an important role to play advocating for decent, affordable housing as a building block of good health. Local government fulfilling its potential to improve local housing stock depends on adequate funding for housing enforcement, help-to-rent schemes giving advice on tenants’ rights and advocacy services. It is also crucial that national government invests in building social homes to tackle the broader housing crisis. 

Supportive relationships with family, friends and community

Emotional support from family, friends and communities is vital to young people’s mental health, with our research finding it also provides support to access employment. However, support networks are under strain from the cost-of-living crisis, underfunded services and the commercialisation of public spaces. The Health Foundation’s Emotional Support for Young People programme is seeking to build evidence on how factors like poverty and parental working patterns affect the ability of parents and others to provide emotional support to young people. 

Young people report feeling lonelier than all other age groups, with loneliness strongly linked to poorer health. It is therefore concerning that there has been a decline in funding for youth provision - the clubs and projects that give young people ‘somewhere to go, something to do, and someone to talk to‘ - with per capita spending in England on young people’s services halved in the eight years to 2018/19, from £136 to £65. A 2019 literature review by the Centre for Youth Impact found that youth work strengthens skills, networks and social capital while challenging ‘risky’ behaviours. Prioritising youth provision and designing local spaces with young people in mind can help shape their future health.  


Many young people are missing out on the crucial building blocks they need to thrive. But investing in building blocks like good quality employment, affordable housing, youth services and community spaces designed with young people in mind can create a resilience that helps keep people healthy. There are also co-benefits to this approach: a healthy community is a more economically prosperous one. Investing in the structures young people need not only supports young people’s mental health today but is also an investment in their futures and our communities. 

This article and views reflected within it were provided and written by Jo Bibby, Director of Health at The Health Foundation.