Young people’s mental health: Exploring the gap between expectation and experience

Betina Jacobsen, Iben Nørup*

*Corresponding author

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review


The proportion of young people suffering from poor mental health is on the increase, including in Scandinavian countries. This increase seems paradoxical, as Scandinavian countries are among those with the lowest degree of material deprivation, economic inequality, and social exclusion.

The aim of the study was firstly to investigate, on an individual level, young people’s own sense-making of poor mental health: their experiences of vulnerability and their explanations of the factors leading to vulnerability and mental health problems. Secondly, the purpose was to further analyse the young people’s experiences by combining them with ideal-typical conceptualisations of social pathologies and an overview of recent structural developments in the educational and social system.

The study was based on explorative, in-depth, focus group interviews conducted in two large Danish cities with 17 young people aged 18–28 years. The interviewees had previously struggled with mental health problems and, on these grounds, had volunteered as ‘youth experts’ to help other young people. As part of the explorative approach, the interviewees themselves thematically clustered the different factors that they considered had led to vulnerability and substantiated the connection within each cluster. Data analysis followed these initial-coded clusters.

The analysis of the three broad themes that emerged – Expectations and performance pressure, Self-perception and self-doubt, and Taboo feelings – identified a substantial gap between expectation and lived experience. The expectations were of an abundance of life and educational options, and a dominating discourse that young people in Scandinavia can become whatever they wish. These expectations were in stark contrast with the lived experiences of feeling pressure to perform and an awareness of the limitation of the opportunities for those who fail to perform, within a landscape of recent structural changes. It was the gap between the discourse of the abundance of options on the one hand and highly regulated actual opportunities on the other that seemed to be the common denominator in the young people’s stories about the distress they felt. The societal discourse of almost endless options appeared to cause the young people in this study to individualise the responsibility for success as well as failure.

The study suggests that the gap between individualised expectations and a lived reality that does not measure up to these expectations could be a central contributing factor in explaining young people’s experiences of poor mental health.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEducational Research
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)249-265
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2020


  • Young people
  • education
  • educational performance
  • educational reforms
  • mental health
  • wellbeing


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