Turning HBSC study data into action: tackling mental ill health in Sweden

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the Swedish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study has shown an alarming increase in young people experiencing multiple health complaints. In response, researchers conducted a nationwide study in 2009 to collect data from almost 170 000 young people between the ages of 12 and 15. Acting on its findings, the Swedish Government decided to invest heavily in schools and health-care systems to identify young people at risk of mental health problems, and to provide support. It also invested 30 million euros in research programmes on effective interventions.

In 2014, the HBSC study revealed that Swedish schoolchildren were still experiencing multiple health complaints – such as irritation, sleep difficulties, and generally feeling low – at double the rate they had reported in 1986. Of particular concern was stress in schools, as well as the increasing number of mental health complaints among 13-year-olds.

In response to this continuing rise in unhappiness, and with public and professional awareness mobilized, the Public Health Agency of Sweden held a major cross-sectoral consultation with civil society and professionals. Together they reviewed the evidence on how young people are affected by social media, social inequality and their own expectations for the future, and shared experiences, ideas and explanations for the trends. The results of the consultation will appear in a 2017 report on the causes of increased psychosomatic symptoms among young people.

The Swedish Government also appointed a national coordinator to support the work of agencies, local authorities, regions and nongovernmental organizations in the area of mental health. Additionally, the Public Health Agency of Sweden is contributing to a regional project, supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers, with HBSC teams in Denmark, Finland and Norway. The teams collect data on positive mental health to provide evidence of similarities and differences.

Thanks to more than 30 years of data from the HBSC study, and the Government’s response, public awareness and understanding of these issues have increased, as has self-reporting of mental health problems by young people themselves.

More about the HBSC study

The WHO collaborative HBSC study has been a pioneering cross-national study and an invaluable resource for over 30 years, providing insights into young people’s well-being, health behaviours and social context. WHO and many others have used its findings to inform policy and practice in countries and regions across Europe, contributing to improvements in the lives of millions of young people.

The HBSC study in Sweden is led by Petra Lofstedt from the Public Health Agency of Sweden. For more information, contact petra.lofstedt@hbsc.org.