The large-scale longitudinal study looked at the impact of both poverty and parental mental ill-health on children’s outcomes
“In the UK, there are concerns about the deterioration in adult mental health and child poverty is also rising. More than half of children growing up in the UK are persistently exposed to either one or both of poor caregiver mental health and family poverty. Our study finds that the combination of these exposures is strongly associated with adverse health outcomes in the next generation.” Dr Nicholas Kofi Adjei, postdoctoral researcher, University of Liverpool
Both child poverty and parental mental health problems have a large negative impact on a child’s health and wellbeing, a study has found.
Researchers at the University of Liverpool, King’s College London and the University of Newcastle used longitudinal data on 10,500 children from the nationally representative UK millennium cohort study. They constructed trajectories of poverty, maternal mental health and the mental health of the secondary caregiver (usually the father) from when the children were nine months to when they reached 14. They then looked at the associations between these trajectories and the child’s mental health outcomes aged 17.
Until now, the researchers said, research on caregivers’ mental health has mainly focused on mothers. The new study looks at the impact of both maternal and paternal mental health.
The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that children exposed to both persistent poverty and poor caregiver mental health were at markedly increased risk of socioemotional behavioural problems, mental health problems and cognitive disability.
The researchers estimate that 40% of socioemotional behavioural problems at the age of 17 were attributable to parents’ persistent mental health problems and poverty. Tackling these issues has the potential to lead to lifetime improvements in earnings across these adolescents of equivalent to around £6.5bn, the researchers found.
Dr Nicholas Kofi Adjei, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Liverpool and a co-author on the study, said: “In the UK, there are concerns about the deterioration in adult mental health and child poverty is also rising. More than half of children growing up in the UK are persistently exposed to either one or both of poor caregiver mental health and family poverty. Our study finds that the combination of these exposures is strongly associated with adverse health outcomes in the next generation.”
The researchers identified five distinct trajectory groups of children based on life course patterns of poverty, and of the mental health of mothers and fathers :
There were clear educational differences between the groups. For example, 6.0% of children in the low poverty and good parental mental health group had mothers with no educational qualifications compared to 43.5% of children in the persistent poverty and poor parental mental health group.
About 10% of the cohort fell into the last group (persistent poverty and poor parental mental health). The study found that the children in this group were 4.2 times more likely to have socioemotional behavioural problems at the age of 17 than those in the first group – those with low poverty and good parental mental health. “If all children in the UK had the exposure trajectory of low poverty and good caregiver mental health, we would see a reduction of socioemotional behavioural problems of 40%, assuming causality,” the authors write.
Approximately 9% of children in the UK experience persistent poor secondary parental caregiver (usually paternal) mental health, the study found. The impact of a father’s poor mental health is associated with an increased risk of adolescent mental health and behavioural problems similar in magnitude to that due mental health problems in the mother.
David Taylor Robinson, professor of public health and policy at the University of Liverpool, said: “Reducing child poverty and parental mental health problems could result in a substantial reduction in poor health across the life course of the UK population, if the right policies and interventions are put in place. These findings are an important step in identifying priority areas for prevention efforts in the UK.”
This is an innovative study that looks at a combination of factors – maternal mental health, paternal mental health and poverty – on outcomes for children at 17. It found a clear association between all three factors, both independently and together, and an adolescent’s behavioural or emotional problems. It is also the first study to find that a father’s poor mental health can have as strong an impact on a child as that of a mother.
While the results are interesting, we have to be careful about drawing conclusions about causation. In particular, it may well be that tackling poverty would do much to reduce the incidence of poor parental mental health. It would also be useful to know more about the particular types of mental health problems experienced by the parents, and whether certain problems were more likely to be associated with poor outcomes than others.