Children and young people with mental health difficulties go an average of ten years between first becoming unwell and first getting any help, according to an evidence review published today by Centre for Mental Health.

Missed Opportunities, by Lorraine Khan, reviews recent evidence about the mental health of children and young people in the UK. It finds that mental health problems are very common among young people, but awareness is poor and most attempts by parents to get help for their children are unsuccessful.

This means there is an average delay of ten years in receiving help. For many children and young people, this decade of delay sees their problems multiply and get progressively worse, eventually escalating into a crisis.

Missed Opportunities finds that the most common mental health problems among children are behavioural problems, which severely affect one child in every 20. It finds that boys are more likely to have mental health problems during early years, but by teenage years girls are more likely to have emotional problems. It finds inconclusive evidence about changes over time but notes that there have been worrying recent reports of growing levels of distress among teenage girls and young women.

The review finds that some groups of children and young people face especially high risks for poor mental health. They include children who have been subjected to neglect and abuse, children who are bullied or who bully, and children whose parents have mental health problems. Groups with higher rates of poor mental health also include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people, those in the youth justice system and those who have been looked after by local authorities.

Missed Opportunities finds that children and parents face major barriers to seeking help for a mental health problem. Most parents of children and young people with emotional or behavioural problems seek help but only a minority are able to get the support they need. Teenagers and young adults, meanwhile, seldom seek help from formal sources. Where they do seek help for their mental health it is from friends or online.

Lorraine Khan, associate director for children and young people at Centre for Mental Health, said: “Childhood mental health problems are extremely common and can be very serious. They affect ten per cent of children each year and can cast a long shadow well into adult life.

“Good mental health is shaped very early on at the first spark of life. Childhood experiences and exposure to risks for poor mental health make some children especially vulnerable to both emotional and behavioural problems. And the longer they are exposed to risks such as neglect, abuse, bullying and the effects of poverty, the more their life chances are undermined.

“Most common childhood mental health problems can be treated effectively. Early help is vital to have the best chance of success. There is good evidence for a range of interventions to boost children’s mental health, and the sooner effective help is offered the more likely it is to work.

“Schools have a particularly important role in protecting children’s mental health. This can be done most effectively through a ‘whole school approach’ including classroom-based skills development and awareness raising, anti-bullying programmes, raised staff mental health literacy, and speedy access to help for children who need it."

We need to take every opportunity to support families and schools to build firm foundations for children’s mental health. We need to raise awareness of the first signs of poor mental health and reinforce the importance of getting early help. And we need to offer effective and young people friendly help for every child of any age at the first signs of difficulty.

“Waiting for a child’s mental health to deteriorate until it hits crisis point causes untold distress and damage to their lives and carries a heavy social and economic cost. We have to take action now to offer high quality help quickly to children and young people everywhere.”

See more about the report here.