Adult comforting a child

Calls for government to prioritise mental health of young children

Report warns that children’s immediate and long-term mental health is at significant risk because mental health services are “under-resourced and inconsistently commissioned”
02 November 2023 , Kerry Taylor-Smith

UNICEF UK says findings provide “a strong evidence base for action” to prioritise mental health from babyhood

A landmark report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) is urging the government to prioritise the mental health of babies and young children to prevent them from suffering lifelong illnesses.

Many mental health conditions develop within the first few years of life, with half emerging by age 14. Global estimates indicate 20.1% of children between one and seven have a mental health condition, while in England, 5.5% of two to four-year-olds struggled with anxiety, behavioural and/or neurodevelopmental disorders before the pandemic.

Various factors contribute, including smoking, alcohol or substance use during pregnancy, socioeconomic deprivation, and adverse childhood trauma like domestic violence, neglect and abuse. However, most parents of children under the age of five lack support to address such issues, pre- and post-pregnancy.

“The period from conception to five is essential in securing the healthy development of children into adulthood,” said Dr Trudi Seneviratne OBE, Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist and Registrar of RCPsych. “Unfortunately, these years are often not given the importance they should be, and many people are unaware of what signs they should be looking out for.”

The report warns children’s immediate and long-term mental health is at significant risk because mental health services are under-resourced and inconsistently commissioned.

Joanna Moody, Senior Policy Advisor for Child Mental Health and Wellbeing at UNICEF UK said, “Mental health in infancy and early childhood is often overlooked, yet it lays the foundations for a child’s future. The report provides a strong evidence base for action to prioritise mental health right from the start of children’s lives.”

The NSPCC welcomes the report and its focus on the importance of mental health support for babies, said Jack O’Neill, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer, NSPCC: “A child’s mental health and wellbeing is impacted by what happens in their early years, yet there is often a lack of focus on mental health support for children under five.”

O’Neill said that babies are particularly vulnerable to abuse and neglect, putting them at a higher risk of developing serious mental illnesses. They are completely reliant on their parents and carers to support their healthy development. “That’s why it’s so important that families are offered tailored services, delivered by a fully resourced and supported workforce, who can recognise signs of abuse and offer help before problems escalate,” he said.

“The majority of under-5s with mental health conditions are not currently receiving [enough] support to help them become productive, functioning adults…”

RCPsych urges the government to introduce specialist services to offer universal support for all families, regardless of where they live, and to prioritise the development of a cross-government early childhood strategy and improve data collection on early childhood outcomes to better understand and support young children.

“The majority of under-5s with mental health conditions are not currently receiving the level of support necessary to help them become productive, functioning adults and reach their full potential,” added Seneviratne. “That’s why we’re calling on the government to roll out comprehensive services in every neighbourhood and region to ensure no family is left to struggle alone.”

Lynn Perry MBE, Barnardo’s Chief Executive, welcomes the report, which could create real change for families by increasing awareness of mental health and improving access to services.

Perry said: “Underestimating the importance of good mental health in young children can have lifelong consequences. Barnardo’s has long been calling for an expansion of family hubs to every community. By offering universal health and wellbeing support for families, they can help with early diagnosis of mental health conditions and increase access to specialist mental health services.”

Image credit: Shutterstock

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