It is a stark statistic that one in ten children have a diagnosable mental health disorder (although this number is probably higher) and that half of all cases of mental illness begin at age 14 (The Children’s Society, Barnardo’s, Factors affecting children’s mental health over time, June 2018).
The Children’s Society’s and Barnardo’s have been working with researchers on the Understanding Society survey to explore what issues affecting children at ages 10-11 were most strongly linked to later mental ill health at 14-15 years old.
What did we find out?
We analysed data from more than 12,000 children and looked at a range of factors such as family relationships, bullying, engagement with school and feelings about appearance – factors that we know have a bearing on children’s mental health and well-being. So what did we find?
We found that children aged 10-11 who argue with their mum ‘most days’ or said they didn’t feel supported by their family were four times more likely to have mental health difficulties, such as anxiety or depression, by the time they were 14-15 years old. Around 1 in 10 (11%) UK children aged 10-11 habitually argue with their mother and 1 in 6 (17%) don’t feel supported by their family in most aspects of their life. (The research was unable to determine if this would be the same finding for fathers as the sample size was too small.)
Although less than 1 in 20 (4%) of 10-11 year old children are bullied a few times each week, the impact is significant: they are 19 times more likely to have mental health difficulties by the time they are 14, than those who aren’t bullied.
Children aged 10-11 who felt unhappy about their appearance were over three times more likely to have increased risk of mental health difficulties than those who felt happy with how they looked. Around 1 in 10 (8%) of 10-11 year olds are unhappy with their appearance, and unhappiness with appearance is more common amongst teenage girls.
Engagement with school
Children’s happiness at school is important to their mental health, especially as they navigate the transition from primary to secondary school. Children who were unhappy with school at age 10-11 were more likely to have peer relationship problems at age 14-15 and were more likely to report conduct and hyperactivity/inattention problems.
In recent years, funding for early intervention services has seen a dramatic cut – between 2010/11 and 2015/16 there has been a 40% decrease in local authority spending on early intervention – yet these findings highlight just how important early intervention is in the prevention of later mental ill health.
Schools have an important role to play in the promotion of mental health and well-being for children and young people. The recent Government Green Paper on transforming children and young people’s mental health provision proposes that every school and college will have a mental health lead. It is important that these mental leads are trained to spot and act on problems like those highlighted in this research.
Although not a focus of this analysis, there is evidence that many adult mental health problems begin in childhood or adolescence, and emerging evidence that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) may have negative impacts on future mental health and well-being outcomes. The Government has in its Green Paper on Mental Health recognised the impact of ACEs and Barnardo’s is calling for an ACEs/trauma informed approach to inform the training of staff in universal services such as schools and specialist services including the proposal for mental health support teams.
The Children’s Society has also been calling for counsellors to be available in every school to support children struggling with things like appearance, bullying, schoolwork and relationships with friends and families to help prevent mental ill-health by addressing these issues as soon as they appear.
The message from this research is clear – there are early warning signs we can identify as children transition from primary to secondary school that are linked to poor mental health in later teenage years. If we are serious about reducing mental ill-health among our young people and giving all children the best start in life policy makers and schools must respond to these findings and do everything they can to improve children’s well-being and prevent mental ill-health.
Charlotte Rainer is a Policy Officer in the Policy and Research team at The Children’s Society, specifically focusing on children’s mental and well-being.
The research was led by Neera Sharma, Assistant Director, Policy at Barnardo’s and Larissa Pople, Senior Researcher, The Children’s Society.
Javed Khan is the Chief Executive of Barnardo’s, the UK’s largest children’s charity.