Childhood mental health and lifetime wellbeing: a conversation about the ‘joined up’ implications of research findings

13 November 2015

Childhood mental health and lifetime wellbeing: a conversation about the ‘joined up’ implications of research findings

Heather Joshi, Institute of Education 

On November 11th 2015, in the lavender-scented hall of the Mother’s Union HQ in Westminster, the Early Intervention Foundation convened a meeting about children’s mental difficulties and skills. Researchers presented findings to an audience of experts in the policy field and front line of practice. Both research studies drew on national longitudinal data. One launched the report: Children of the New Century: mental health findings. The latest evidence shows little change in the level of likely mental ill health in 11 year olds since the turn of the century, but a steepening social gradient. The prevalence, persistence and combination of problems were higher for boys than girls. The second study had been done for EIF, Social and emotional skills in childhood and their long-term effects on adult life. It relates outcomes at age 42 to difficulties and skills recorded at age 10 among people born in 1970. The ‘skills’ included the absence of the sort of difficulties which, in severe form, constitute mental disorders, as well as academic and ‘soft skills’. All, in varying degree, helped to predict having got on well in adulthood, in terms of career attainments, health, family, civic engagement and life satisfaction.

The cohort studies, by their nature, are well suited to looking at the individual in the round, but the services which support children’s development, and treat their mental health problems tend to operate in silos: health services, schools and social care. The meeting heard encouraging news about the Departments of Health and Education working together to implement the recommendations of the recent Future in Mind report, backed by an extra £1.25 billion in the NHS budget (over the next five years) for child and adolescent mental health services. There was not such good news about the problems that are being encountered ‘on the ground’  where other budgets are being cut – services for adult mental health, cash benefits, youth and leisure facilities, etc. – in locally fragmented ways. The diversification of schools away from local authority control complicates the joining up of policy to prevent and overcome children’s mental health illness, and focus more positively on their healthy development. Early intervention to prevent the development of costlier problems later on was a recurrent theme. So too was the need for appropriate training for teachers, and for more widespread monitoring of children’s psychological adjustment in schools. Another set of messages, presenting something more of a challenge, were to avoid  the ‘medicalisation’ of behaviour and emotional problems while at the same time addressing under-diagnosis, stigma and reluctance to ask for help. The ‘voice of the child’ may not be heard even when it is raised.  The problems of other family members are still the responsibility of other silos. Nevertheless, ‘joining up’ the health and education professionals dealing with actual children would be a step in the right direction.

At this offering to the ESRC Festival of Social Science, it was instructive to hear what ‘users’ had to say, and gratifying for the researchers to take part in  a constructive debate.