Last summer, the Government consulted widely on a “mental health and wellbeing plan“. There was a widely welcomed commitment to “improving mental health and wellbeing outcomes, particularly for people who experience worse outcomes than the general population. This is a key part of our commitment to ‘level up’, and address unequal outcomes and life chances across the country.”
This week it was announced that there will be no mental health plan moving forwards. Instead, there will be a major conditions strategy focused on reducing the incidence of mental illness and other chronic and acute conditions. This is very different from the proposed mental health plan – there is an important distinction to be made between promoting mental health & wellbeing and preventing serious mental illness.
We all have mental health. Being ‘mentally healthy’ is about the ability to feel good, function well and flourish. It is not only about the absence of mental illness, but much more than that. Being mentally healthy is a positive state that enables us to achieve many other valuable things, such as sustaining meaningful relationships, making a positive contribution to our communities, and enjoying and achieving at work or school.
Many of our babies, children and young people’s mental health is not as good as it could be. In 2020, it was estimated that one in six children have a probable mental disorder, a significant rise from one in nine in 2017. This is an issue of concern to many people. Most parents’ biggest wish is that their children are happy and healthy. At the moment, many are rightly concerned about the high level of mental health problems affecting our children and young people. A survey by MIND in England last year found that one in three (34%) grandparents say that mental health is their biggest concern for their grandchildren’s generation, and that half of parents believe that their child’s mental health is now worse than it was pre-pandemic.
This is an issue that matters to children themselves too. In the Children’s Commissioners’ “Big Ask” survey, 20% of children between the ages of 9 and 17 said they were not happy about their mental health. This was as high as 40% amongst girls aged 16-17. Just over half (52%) of 9-17 year olds said that having good mental health in the future was one of their main aspirations. One eight-year-old told the Commissioner: “[If I could change anything] I would change my mental health because I can get quite sad and it doesn’t feel quite right and it gets annoying.”
Babies, children and young people’s mental health has been affected by the pandemic. The Casting Long Shadows report, which I co-authored last year, told of increased social and emotional issues amongst babies and toddlers since the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar stories were repeated in yesterday’s report on school readiness by Kindred Squared, where a teacher explains that dealing with children’s “emotional outbreaks” is making it harder to teach children in school. Poor mental health impacts on young children’s ability to thrive at nursery and at school, which will have knock-on impacts on their wider wellbeing and life chances.
The Major Conditions strategy will focus on illnesses which occur mainly in adulthood. It may discuss childhood health and wellbeing, since there are clear associations between adversity in childhood and later ill health. But even if childhood wellbeing is included in Government’s new strategy, it will be valued only to the extent that it is instrumental in the prevention of adult illness. Children’s health and happiness should be valued in its own right.
We know that there are many ways to support children’s mental health, and at PEDAL our research is helping to provide detailed evidence about what works. Our Healthy Start, Happy Start study used a play-based video programme delivered by health visitors to support parents to interact with their babies and toddlers in a sensitive and responsive way. Our evidence shows that this intervention reduced the incidence of behavioural problems. However, despite strong evidence, interventions that promote and protect babies and young children’s mental health currently struggle to get resourced in public services due to funding and workforce pressures, and a focus on more acute services.
We need a clear plan and leadership from Government to improve the mental health of our babies, children and young people – supported with sufficient resources. The scrapping of the mental health plan shows a lack of commitment to improving our children’s lives now, and to protecting their futures.
Find out more about the research our Play in Early Life team is doing on protecting babies, children and young people’s mental health below.
- Through the Helping Little Minds Thrive project, we’re building a pathway of support for families and public services to strengthen mental health in the earliest years.
- The Healthy Start, Happy Start team are now conducting a follow-up study with children that are 7-9 years old to understand how much of the programme’s initial impact has been sustained and if families need additional support as their children continue to grow.