Boy withdrawn in a stairwell. LEHTIKUVA

Health & wellbeing

A recent study conducted by the Research Centre for Child Psychiatry at the University of Turku has highlighted a significant increase in anxiety symptoms among young people. By comparing extensive population-level surveys of the psychosocial well-being of children aged 8-9 and adolescents aged 13-16 before and after the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, researchers observed not only a noticeable rise in anxiety and difficulties but also a dramatic escalation particularly among girls in a relatively short period.

"Changes have usually been in the range of a few percentage points, but now, especially for girls, anxiety and difficulties have increased really a lot in a short time frame," says Professor André Sourander, who leads the study.

The study revealed a marked increase in difficulties related to emotional states, concentration, behavior, and social interactions among adolescents aged 13-16. While in 2018, 14.5% of girls aged 13-16 experienced clear and significant difficulties, by 2023, this figure had doubled to 28%. Although boys also reported an increase in difficulties, the change was less pronounced than in girls.

The increase in psychological distress was particularly notable in the anxiety levels of girls aged 13-16. In 2018, 20% of girls showed symptoms above the clinical threshold, whereas by 2023, this figure had jumped to 31%.

Interestingly, the study found no similar population-level changes among children aged 8-9 when comparing data from 2019 and late 2021, suggesting that the younger children's psychosocial well-being remained relatively stable across the pandemic period.

"We have been collecting data on the psychosocial well-being of children and young people for the last 30 years, and we have never observed such a significant change before. The pandemic-related changes are specifically linked to the psychosocial well-being of young people, whereas for younger children, the pandemic period does not seem to be associated with an increase in psychosocial problems," Professor Sourander elaborates.

The study also identified a strong connection between young people's anxiety and external threats, with a significant percentage of youth expressing concern over war, climate change, natural disasters, and pandemics. These concerns are particularly acute among girls, with 20% expressing very high concern about climate change and 11% about the threat of war.

Given these findings, Professor Sourander emphasizes the need for further investigation into the causes of the observed changes in young people's mental health and calls for policymakers to take immediate action. "With the increase in problems, it's essential to enable access to low-threshold support for young people within their everyday environments, such as schools and primary healthcare. This requires comprehensive action in political decision-making, as the rising anxiety among young people is a problem that shakes the entire society," he concludes.