I believe that the foundations of good mental health are put in place before a child is even born. In fact, I believe that the earliest mental health care intervention possible is ensuring that all mothers, fathers, guardians, and families are supported in their own mental health – before the birth of the child, and shortly after birth.
For babies and toddlers, having a loving, warm relationship with their parents or carers lays the groundwork for good mental health throughout their lives. Supporting infant mental health means supporting and nurturing those relationships within a family.
This is why, in my most recent mental health report, I have called for every family to receive support throughout pregnancy and the early years through family hubs. This support doesn’t only have to come through family hubs. It can also be through improved, more regular support from health visiting services that directly check-in with parental and infant mental health.
Sadly, too often, this sort of early support from health visitors and children’s services is not always available for parents and their young children. There is often a lack of clarity over which organisations are responsible for commissioning early support for families.
I will be exploring in more detail in my upcoming Family Review how exactly these early years services can best support all families – by making sure they are accessible, tied in to their communities, and working closely together.
Additionally, NHS mental health services are not well set up to support infants under the age of 5. This means that emerging mental health problems or SEND are not always identified early enough.
Young people have told us that they wish their symptoms of poor mental health had been picked up earlier by professionals, showing how vital mental health care in the early years can be for young people:
“I was described as ‘an old soul’ and ‘beyond my years’ – like no 4-year-old has panic attacks, it’s not just a quirk. No one said, ‘what’s going on’, it was just a case of you will grow up and grow out of it. Everything was sort of like brushed off” – Girl, 19, in focus group for ‘A Head Start’ report.
It is only by taking mental health in the early years and in the family seriously that we will achieve change for children.