New research finds that children’s behavioural problems are often caused by exposure to poverty, racism and overcrowded housing
“Children’s mental health is getting progressively poorer in the UK. Our report shows that children’s healthy social development depends on having their basic needs met – enough money to live on, a safe, warm home, and loving relationships. For families facing deprivation, destitution and discrimination, it’s a struggle to provide these and give their children a mentally healthy start in life." Kadra Abdinasir, associate director of policy, Centre for Mental Health
Children’s mental health is being put at risk by financial pressures on parents, as well as overcrowded housing and a lack of safe green spaces, according to new research by the Centre for Mental Health.
The findings of the research, commissioned by the charity Impact on Urban Health, are outlined in a report, Growing stronger together. The study found that, while parents and carers play a key role in children’s healthy social development, the cost-of-living crisis and other financial pressures are putting families under strain as they struggle to make ends meet.
The aim of the research was to have a better understanding of the causes of behavioural problems in children. It found that, although parents are commonly blamed when their children behave badly, the problems are often caused by exposure to risks such as poverty, racism and overcrowded housing. This in turn puts a child at risk of poorer outcomes such as school exclusion.
The researchers heard evidence from parents in Lambeth and Southwark who spoke of their struggle to support their children’s wellbeing at the same time as working long hours to make ends meet, or living in overcrowded and insecure housing. They also described how racism affected their children’s wellbeing, making them more likely to face mental health difficulties.
The report makes 13 recommendations for central government, local government and NHS integrated care systems. The recommendations for central government include legislative change. It says: “Essentially there needs to be a long-term, cross-government and other agency strategy to improve childhood and young adulthood in the UK. This requires a new Child Poverty Act to eradicate the main driver of poor outcomes.”
The other recommendations for central government are:
“Proper coordination of the wide-ranging and fragmented activity focused on children’s healthy social development and the reduction of behavioural difficulties is also required,” the report’s authors write. “There is currently a lack of a whole life-course pathway in local areas, which contributes to fragmented working and a focus on crisis care, rather than prevention and early intervention.”
Kadra Abdinasir, associate director of policy at the Centre for Mental Health, said: “Children’s mental health is getting progressively poorer in the UK. Our report shows that children’s healthy social development depends on having their basic needs met – enough money to live on, a safe, warm home, and loving relationships. For families facing deprivation, destitution and discrimination, it’s a struggle to provide these and give their children a mentally healthy start in life. When children then struggle in school, they get labelled as having behavioural problems, punished and sometimes excluded, all of which makes things worse. This urgently needs to change. Every child deserves a mentally healthy start in life and a fair chance in school.”
Kamna Muralidharan, children’s mental health programme director at Impact on Urban Health, said that the charity had already heard from a lot of local children and families about the distress caused by unsafe and overcrowded housing, unaffordable food bills and lack of safe green spaces to play. She added: “We also know from our trusted community partners, particularly the Black-led organisations and support groups, that racism causes trauma from a very young age. Both directly, in the ways children and families are treated, and because it stops children being able to access safe and compassionate support.”
This welcome report from the Centre for Mental Health provides further evidence that behavioural difficulties and mental health problems in children are linked to social factors such as poverty, inadequate housing and racism. There is a real need to tackle these problems, and the report’s authors are right to say that this requires central government, local government and the NHS all to work together to make sure that children live in good-quality housing, with access to green spaces and free school meals if needed.