Iain Duncan Smith is reported to be considering enlisting midwives, GPs and registrars help to tackle family breakdown by reducing stigma around relationship support.
The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has long argued that family breakdown takes a tremendous toll on families and children, but it is not inevitable. To address this, we need a concerted and comprehensive approach to support family relationships. Getting health professionals involved is exactly the kind of joined-up approach the Social Justice Cabinet Committee was set up to develop.
While there is a growing demand for couple support services, research shows this is still widely held to be a deeply personal matter. Talking about relationship difficulties carries significant stigma and is thought to signify failure and disloyalty. Worryingly, if an individual mentions relationship problems to their GP they are more likely to be signposted to a solicitor than to relationship counselling.
What is required is a shift away from picking up the pieces of relationship breakdown at crisis point, towards earlier, preventative support; we need to think of relationship support more as akin to a healthy diet, and less like GP visits or A&E.
It is widely recognised that the transition to parenthood is one of the biggest challenges a couple can face. Getting a wider range of professionals in public services – maternity services, health visitors, Children’s Centres, registrars – to be more aware of the stress on a relationship is vitally important. This is an opportune point for investing in early intervention to shore up couple relationships and offer support before problems become more entrenched.
There are already some initiatives. OnePlusOne, for example, has developed a training course for health visitors and other primary care staff called ‘Brief Encounters’, which aims to help professionals identify difficulties and decide whether or not to intervene and how to best support clients with their relationships.
Similarly, ‘Let’s Stick Together’ is a short, one-hour course on relationships for new mums and dads, developed by Bristol Community Family Trust run by Care for the Family in post-natal classes and in Sure Start centres. It teaches simple but powerful principles, based on research into what makes a happy, healthy relationship and practical tips that will make a difference. The recent evaluation found positive average improvement in relationship quality, and even though the intervention is very short, around a third of parents surveyed up to six months later were able to recall some of its key messages, and two-thirds felt attending the session changed the way they viewed or behaved in their relationships.
Health professionals are an ideal starting point, but this should be just the start. Family breakdown is estimated to cost £46 billion a year. As well as the financial cost it carries a substantial human cost. The CSJ’s research has shown that family breakdown can be a driver and root cause of disadvantage and social exclusion. It can drive loneliness in older age. It can drive demand for housing. It is associated with negative outcomes for children, including behavioural problems and lower educational attainment.
What is required is a whole-systems change, with all services which come into contact with parents seeing couple relationships as everyone’s business. Training for professionals across public services can be a vital start in a drive to reverse family instability and breakdown.