• One in 10 children aged between 5 and 16 years (three in every classroom) has a mental health problem, and many continue to have these problems into adulthood. Half of those with lifetime mental health problems first experience symptoms by the age of 14.
• Among teenagers, rates of depression and anxiety have increased by 70% in the past 25 years.
• One in five children have symptoms of depression and almost a third of the 16-25-year-olds surveyed had thought about or attempted suicide.
• Ten years ago, detailed estimates put the costs of mental health problems in England at £77 billion, including costs of lost productivity and the wider impacts on wellbeing. More recent estimates suggest the costs may be closer to £105 billion.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, recent research shows child adversity and psychological troubles may speed up aging leading to poor health and earlier death.
The 7-month-pregnant Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, 33, lent her support to Children’s Mental Health Week in this video message. "Both William and I have seen that many young people are struggling to cope with the impact of bullying, bereavement, domestic violence, family breakdown and more," Middleton says. “Without support, the effects of these challenges can be traumatic, leading to serious issues such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and self harm.”
We should all support the work of organisations like Place2Be. The 30 percent of parents who are “embarrassed” by the idea of child counselling need to get over themselves.
The Government, too, claims to be committed to improving mental health provision and services for children and young people. A recent report sets out the current situation, recent funding commitments, and identifies new initiatives, including new guidance for teachers on mental health, access to schools-based counselling, and recommendations for mandatory mental health education on the national curriculum. You can download the report here.
But what governments say and do, as we know, can be quite different. Sometimes they are exact opposites. So in Children's Mental Health Week, we learn of the children’s mental health “timebomb” caused by massive budget cuts (£50 million slashed from child and adolescent mental health services since 2010), the shocking, ballooning number of children showing up at A&E in the grip of a psychological crisis, and the generally toxic climate we have created for the next generation. Writes the Mirror: “We revealed how savage cuts to early intervention services had led to alarming numbers of mentally ill youngsters falling seriously ill with rising numbers being hospitalised ... Today’s new A&E figures highlight why children’s mental health services urgently need a cash injection
“They show there were 17,278 admissions at A&E involving patients aged 18 and under with a diagnosis of ‘psychiatric conditions’ in 2013/14 - an 85.2% increase from 9,328 in 2010/11.
“Of the 17,278 young patients, only 5,367 were admitted to a hospital bed within the same trust or provider. Others had to be shunted to other hospitals because of a lack of specialist mental healthcare at the hospital where they were admitted to A&E.”
The legacy of former education secretary Michael Gove, reviled by parents, teachers and commentators across the land (and even described as a “monster” by admirers), is taking its toll. With relentless testing and pressure to meet ever-changing targets, we are robbing our youth of their right to be youthful, turning children into stressed academic battery hens instead. Childline has witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of children receiving counselling for exam-related anxiety—a tripling in just one year, with 43 percent under the age of 11.
Perhaps the government will belatedly realize it’s continue-flogging-until-morale-improves approach to education might not be working that well. A report released today announces an attempt to paper over the gaping stress fractures by introducing weekly “happiness” lessons. Writes the Telegraph: “Former ministers and Government advisors are calling for radical changes in the way British pupils are brought up, with accusations of a ‘grossly inhumane’ failure to care for children’s wellbeing. Their report, due to be presented to a global health summit this week will say mental health problems among children and teenagers have become ‘a massive problem’ with one in 10 now suffering from diagnoses such as anxiety and depression.”
The report proposes that school pupils from the age of 5 would spend at least one hour a week discussing their emotions, setting positive life goals, and learning how to cope with everyday pressures and social media. “Increasingly in many countries, schools are becoming exam factories,” the report warns.
Happiness lessons? Fine. But this feels like much too little, much too late. Children need to be allowed to be children—to play, to make a mess, to be spontaneous, to create (grown-ups should try it sometime, too). And above all, starting long before school, what children most need is love.
When you look into the eyes of a baby, you see not a blank slate but a kind of ancient wisdom and intelligence. More than 20 involuntary reflexes have been identified in newborns; we have subjective and intersubjective skills from birth. Then the brain more than doubles in weight in the first year of life. Says Sue Gerhardt in the classic “Why Love Matters”: “What needs to be written in neon letters lit up against a night sky is that the orbitofrontal cortex, which is so much about being human, develops almost entirely post-natally.” And that development occurs through social interaction.
The development of the architecture of the infant brain is a kind of ongoing process of downloading software from the environment. Even a simple smile from a parent can set off a biochemical chain reaction of physiological pleasure, and the creation of new neural pathways in the young brain. So love your children. It doesn’t cost anything. Babies who are loved develop better brains than those who aren’t.
There is a small window of opportunity for optimal brain growth to occur. The right hemisphere in particular shows a dramatic growth spurt during the first year and a half of life as the preverbal, emotional landscape is defined. Early trauma can flood the system with stress hormones that can lead to a “developmental overpruning” of the corticolimbic system, compromising that person’s ability to respond to stress in later life. Studies of Romanian orphans, deprived of early human interaction, show they had gaps in their brains—their orbitofrontal cortexes did not fully develop. They never will.
But these patterns are not ccompletely immutable. The brain—with a hundred billion neurons which together form a million billion connections—retains a degree of plasticity, an ability to develop and grow, like a muscle, throughout life. Software upgrades—and learning—are always available through good experiences, which can come from education, practising skills, overcoming challenges, or, above all, through relationships—including counselling and psychotherapy. The brain continually changes in response to the people and the environment it meets, and so do you. The branching, connecting and withering of dendrites in brains, through lifelong interactions within and between individuals, families and communities, is what makes our world.
How are you with love? Maybe you haven’t had enough of it in your life. Maybe you’ve experienced the opposite of love. Well, it’s not too late. It is never too late to love, be loved, and to grow.