Stephen Scott: We neglect children’s mental health at our peril

Stephen Scott
·2-min read
Fight! Some south London children make the most of their journey to school <br></br>Picture by Peter Jordan
Fight! Some south London children make the most of their journey to school

Picture by Peter Jordan

“Health and happiness”, isn’t that what we ask for? But what is the point of being physically well if we are miserable and don’t have a good life?

The key to a happy life begins in childhood. If good things are put into you, and mental health problems treated early, then you will probably do well later on — with satisfying relationships and a rewarding job. Fifty per cent of adult mental health disorders begin before the age of 14, and 75 per cent before the age of 18.

So obviously we should invest in children’s well-being. We know this when we choose a school for our children — as well as exam results, we look for a nurturing environment that promotes happiness. But we have no say over the quality of the mental services they get.

This is a tragedy, since approximately 16 per cent of children (five in a class of 30) have a serious, diagnosable mental disorder, ranging from anxiety and depression, to behavioural difficulties and ADHD — which have an even bigger effect in spoiling their lives. All of them are often cloaked in shame, so remain largely hidden.

This might be sad but acceptable, if there were no treatments. But we have lots of proven interventions that help young people, and set them up for success as adults.

Thus with anti-social/disruptive behaviour, trials with over 10,000 children show that teaching parents specific techniques has immediate benefits and leads to better school performance and lasting improvements.

But if they are not treated, my own research shows they grow up to cost 10 times extra, £250,000 more than well-behaved individuals. So as well as helping happiness, nipping children’s mental health problems in the bud saves the taxpayer thousands of pounds.

Yet sadly, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are so stretched, with only £50 per head of population to provide outpatient services, that they often exclude children with disruptive behaviour, or who are not suicidal, psychotic or starving themselves. It is time to stop hiding the problem, bring it out into the light and provide the resources to help children be happier and have the chance to grow up as successful adults.

Stephen Scott is Professor of Child Health and Behaviour at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London

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