Mental illness in young people: prevention is crucial

Mental illness in young people: prevention is crucial

12th March 2015

The Times’ emphasis on children and young people’s mental health is very welcome and incredibly well-timed. They have made it virtually impossible for any party to publish their manifestos without solutions to this pressing need. Today’s leader lifts a key recommendation from our report, Enough is Enough, that we do a full refresh of mental health data – most of our current statistics were collected over a decade ago. Professor Tanya Byron, who drew up their ten-point plan states, ‘services are being commissioned in the dark.’

As to the rest of the plan, while the CSJ would not disagree with any of it, when it comes to this devastatingly sad issue there is an elephant in the room which gets no mention: the prevention of mental ill-health in general and the prevention of family breakdown in particular.

There is no doubt that mental health problems can seem to come from nowhere: genetic predisposition can play a massive part, as can brain injury.

However, much of the time mental illness has resulted from or been greatly exacerbated by emotional damage due to abuse trauma and lack, whether in the early years or later on. There is very broad agreement that separation from a parent, a dearth of confiding relationships and a highly dysfunctional family life are all major drivers of poor mental health for children and young people. Again, Enough is Enough drives this point home with its many case studies of emotionally deprived children with profound – and unmet – mental health needs.

Safe, stable and nurturing relationships are essential for children’s well-being so it makes sense that the recent Good Childhood Inquiry led by Lord Layard and Professor Judy Dunn concluded that family breakdown and conflict had the biggest adverse impact on children. Intense parental rows can undermine children’s ability to make friends and lead to behavioural problems, depression and anxiety, low self esteem, eating disorders and substance misuse.

But the answer is not simply to split up: the Inquiry also found that children with separated, single or step-parents are significantly more likely to experience these problems. The report concluded that ‘Child-rearing is one of the most challenging tasks in life and ideally it requires two people’.

Given this research and the fact that only one in two young people sitting their GCSEs are still living with both their parents, we should not be surprised that so many are struggling to cope. Helping mums and dads with their relationships – and with their parenting – should be on everyone’s manifesto, preventing mental disorder is surely better than trying to cure it.