This week Centre for Mental Health and the University College London Institute of Education published new data showing that children from the lowest income families are four times more likely to have mental health problems than those from the highest earning backgrounds.
With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, the Institute and the Centre have been studying data on the mental health of children born in 2000 and 2001 up to the age of 11. The children are all part of the Millennium Cohort Study, which collects anonymised information over a number of years about children born at the turn of the century.
Using reports from both parents and teachers, we now have information about the mental health of children in the study up to the age of 11. The figures show that, as expected, one child in 10 among this age group had a mental health problem in 2012. But this rises to one in five among children in the lowest earning 20% of households and falls to one in twenty among the highest earning fifth of the population. The difference between rich and poor is particularly pronounced for conduct problems, which we know from previous research are associated with some of the poorest outcomes in later life.
The figures also show that one child in five experienced a mental health difficulty at least once during the first 11 years of their life while about 4% had difficulties at every stage their parents were surveyed. This implies that while mental health problems are common among our children, only a minority experience them consistently during childhood. But it also means that by the age of 11 a large proportion of children have already experienced significant distress, creating opportunities for early intervention that might prevent later difficulties.
The figures also show that rates of mental ill health are similar to those found in previous surveys from 1999 and 2004, and if anything slightly lower. Despite concerns about growing levels of mental ill health among children, these figures imply that overall prevalence is falling slightly but that levels of distress are still far higher than available services are able to deal with.
Finally, the study shows that mental health problems are twice as common among boys aged 11 than girls, with behavioural problems occurring much more frequently among boys than girls.
Future surveys will tell us whether these patterns stay the same among older children or if they change during adolescence. But what we can say with confidence now is that by the time they leave primary school, 20% of children will have experienced mental health problems at least once in their life.
This is an important reminder of the need to prioritise early intervention, to make use of effective and cost-effective interventions in children’s early years to prevent and manage mental health problems. From improved perinatal mental health care for new parents to parenting programmes to help manage children’s behaviours, and from social and emotional learning to effective anti-bullying programmes in schools, we need to invest urgently in our children’s mental health.
We cannot wait until yet another generation reaches adulthood to respond to the urgent need to protect and promote our children’s mental health.