Children in Wales who started secondary school in 2021 were more likely to report elevated symptoms of depression than those who began before the pandemic, a study has found.

Academics at Cardiff University analysed responses from a student health and wellbeing survey, which found just under a quarter of children who started Year 7 in 2021 reported increased depression compared to 15% in 2019.

The survey involved 120,000 11 to 16 year olds from 202 schools in Wales taking part just 18 months after the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Dr Nicholas Page, who led the analysis, said: “Transitioning to secondary school is a period of potentially heightened stress and anxiety, and this finding could suggest that such feelings were further elevated for young people in Wales who started secondary school in 2021, following the disruption of the pandemic.”

The analysis also showed an overall increase in the percentage of children reporting elevated symptoms of depression in 2021, of 28% compared to 24% in 2019.

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No change was found among boys, suggesting this rise was driven by increased rates among girls – from 33% to 39% and a small number of gender non-binary students, which rose from 61% to 78%.

Children in Year 11 had the highest prevalence of mental health difficulties compared to other year groups, with 36% reporting elevated symptoms of depression in 2021, up from 33% in 2019.

Professor Simon Murphy, director of the Centre for Development, Evaluation, Complexity and Implementation in Public Health Improvement, said: “These results, gathered before and 18 months since the beginning of the pandemic, provide important insights regarding changes in young people’s mental health and wellbeing during this time.

“While it is not possible to say whether declines in young people’s mental health are due to the pandemic or a general trend, it will be important to continue to monitor these indicators to aid Covid-19 recovery efforts in Wales.”