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First port of call

General Practitioners (GPs) are a frontline service for young people struggling with their mental health. This report looks at the role they play and how early access to mental health support could be improved.


YoungMinds and The Children's Society

Number of pages:

22 pages

Date published:


young girl on laptop looking away smiling

The role of GPs

General Practitioners (GPs) are a frontline service for young people struggling with their mental health. They can play a crucial role in providing advice to young people, and in making referrals to specialist support which can be life changing.

However, both young people and GPs themselves often voice frustration over their experiences of supporting young people’s mental health, with each struggling to navigate the complexity of our health system.

We wanted to hear from young people and GPs about what they thought needed to change to ensure that young people can access mental health support when they need it. 

What did we do? 

We sought to capture a range of views from young people and GPs about the quality and effectiveness of primary health care in responding to young people’s mental health between July  2020 and March 2021.

To understand the views of young people we carried out a survey with 2,005 young people aged 16-25 across the UK with past experiences of mental health.

  • The survey includes responses from young people living in Wales (4%), Scotland (5%) and Northern Ireland (2%).
  • The majority of survey respondents were female (66%).
  • 67% of respondents reported being White; 12% of respondents were of an Asian ethnicity, 9% reported being Black and 7% were of mixed ethnicity. 

We also conducted interviews with GPs to understand their experiences of supporting young people with their mental health and to understand the landscape of community mental health support in their local area. The report also draws on a survey that YoungMinds commissioned with 1,008 GPs across the UK during October 2019. 

Key findings

  • 55% of 16-25 year-olds surveyed had visited their GP about a mental health concern at some point in their lives; 33% reported that they had been to their GPs between two and five times about their mental health.

facts and figures


would prefer to be able to access mental health support without seeing their GP


knew other routes to mental health support without seeing GP

key findings part two

  • In a 2019 survey, only 10% of GPs surveyed agreed that they usually feel confident that a referral to NHS Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS) will result in treatment. More than three-quarters (76%) disagreed.
  • In the same survey, only 8% of GPs surveyed agreed that there is good community support for children and young people with mental health problems in their area (e.g. through youth clubs, local charities, drop-in centres etc). 77% disagreed.

facts and figures

GPs are a significant source of support for young people’s mental health across the country. Many young people told us that going to see their GP made a positive difference in their journey to mental health support. For some young people, GPs provided significant levels of support whilst they received or waited for specialist services.

However, young people also reported experiencing negative experiences associated with going to see their GP about their mental health, and barriers to accessing support. This may be related to persistent stigma related to accessing mental health support, not feeling that problems are bad enough to go to see a GP, or because of difficulties related to the processes of engaging with GPs.

Despite the improvements to mental health support for young people in recent years, it remains the case that access to specialist services varies considerably across the country and that early support is often even harder to access. GPs have variable confidence and knowledge in supporting young people with their mental health.

boy looks down as his GP talks to him

What needs to change?

There must be a renewed focus on early intervention by supporting young people with their mental health much earlier - before their needs escalate to the point of needing specialist support.
We want a network of early support hubs across the country so as many young people as possible can access them. Early support hubs offer drop-in support on a self-referral basis for anyone up to age 25 struggling with their mental health and well-being.

Because they are easy to access, they take away some of the barriers we hear that young people face when they first reach out and it means that young people can go to them without needing an appointment first.

They can be flexible to their location and what is already there, but generally speaking they will be:

  • physical, dedicated spaces in local areas specifically for young people up to age 25
  • created for young people and their needs
  • bringing together information and advice for young people on work, employment and sexual health alongside support for mental health.

We are currently calling on the government to #FundtheHubs. Early support hubs already exist in some areas but national, long-term funding would secure their future and ensure that young people in most areas will be able to access them, in the same way as they do in other countries.

We are also calling for the Government to:

  • improve access to NHS children and young people’s mental health services
  • embed the principles of a youth-friendly practice in GP surgeries across the country to improve accessibility for children and young people. 
  • provide additional training for GPs and surgery staff on children and young people’s mental health
  • ensure that GPs and other professionals are aware of services and support options for young people’s mental health
  • enable families to support young people who are experiencing mental ill health.