When I conducted the Big Ask survey of over half a million children, it was abundantly clear that mental health was of critical importance to children. It was one of the things that they were most worried about as a barrier to helping them achieve their ambitions. Two in five older teenage girls were worried about their mental health. That is why I have made children’s mental health a core focus of my work as Children’s Commissioner.
And when we think about mental health we often, understandably, focus on the challenges for children in accessing support. My latest mental health report found that waiting times for children’s mental health services have started to go up for the first time in years, so it is vital that we keep trying to improve on that front.
But if we truly want to improve children’s mental health, we also need to think about promoting well-being, and preventing poor mental health from ever developing. And to do that means thinking about the family.
Family dynamics and children’s mental health can’t really be separated out. Children exist within families, and improving a child’s relationships with parents, carers and families is the lynchpin to improving their mental health. This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to infant mental health and wellbeing, which is often given too little attention despite the evidence that early years are a crucial time for a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development.
Last year, I was commissioned by Government to conduct an independent review into contemporary family life. This comprehensive review, which involved hearing from over 8000 children and parents, highlighted that having a supportive family is the foundation for children’s happiness, healthy relationships and success later in life.
However, families face challenges and pressures which they need support to cope with. My review found that financial struggles, housing issues, childcare, familial conflict, abuse, and parental mental ill-health or substance use can all reduce the protective effect of families for children.
One little girl said: ‘I’m worried about my mum and her mental health, and to be honest, I’m worried about mine.’
Too often we are still trying to ‘solve’ the problems of one member of a family without seeing the family as a whole.
That’s why it is so important to prioritise family, in whatever form that takes – because by getting things right for families we will allow children to thrive and be happier.