Mental health - what changes do we want to see?

Mental health problems in children and young people are common and account for a significant proportion of the burden of ill health in this age range. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as not simply the absence of disorder but ‘a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’

This broader definition is particularly appropriate in childhood and adolescence, as mental health is the foundation of health development, and mental health problems at this life stage can have adverse and long-lasting effects.

Mental health problems not only cause distress but can also be associated with significant problems in other aspects of life and affect life chances. Research on the longer term consequences of mental health problems in children and adolescence have found associations with poorer employment prospects. Other increased risks include drug and alcohol use, particularly for young people with conduct disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and emotional disorder. 

Research from around the world has found that the risk of developing a mental health problem is strongly increased by social disadvantage and adversity. Parental mental illness is known to be associated with a higher rate of mental health problems in children and young people as are parental substance misuse and parental criminality. 

Children and young people who have experienced severe adversity such as abuse and neglect are at particularly high risk of developing a mental health problem, as are looked after children and young people in contact with the criminal justice system. Severe bullying and experiences of discrimination can also act as risk factors for the development of mental health problems. 

Promoting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing is a priority area for the RCPCH. To inform the State of Child Health 2017, we consulted 326 children and young people. Mental health was raised as a major area of concern for children and young people, particularly issues around lack of support in both primary and secondary schools and the need to reduce waiting times for mental health services. 
Many children and young people told us that they had a lack of knowledge around mental health, with specific anxieties around how to deal with mental health concerns in themselves and others, as well as questions about who they should turn to for guidance. Many children and young people thought that mental health education should be specifically taught from primary school onwards so that they could be more confident and better prepared to cope with the challenges of mental health in adolescence and adulthood. 

The State of Child Health report also highlighted the lack of data on children and young people's mental health. This needs urgent action given evidence of increasing concerns about children and young people’s mental health. Prevalence data for mental health conditions are a particular need. 
We want to see: 

  • The National Mental Health survey carried out every three years to identify the prevalence of mental health problems among children and young people in order to aid the planning of healthcare services
  • Professional bodies representing all those working with infants, children and young people in health, social care, education, criminal justice and community settings equipping their members with the necessary tools to identify mental health issues through the promotion of resources such as the MindEd portal.