Children’s mental health being threatened by mounting financial pressures on families, says Centre for Mental Health report

14 December 2023

Children’s mental health is being jeopardised by financial pressures on parents, overcrowded housing and lack of safe green spaces, according to new research by Centre for Mental Health.

The research finds that while parents and carers play a key role in children’s healthy social development, the cost-of-living crisis and other financial pressures are putting families under strain as they struggle to make ends meet.

Commissioned by Impact on Urban Health, Growing stronger together set out to better understand behavioural problems in children – which are among the most common childhood mental health problems. It finds that while parents are commonly blamed for their child’s behavioural challenges, these are often caused by exposure to multiple risks such as poverty and financial strain, racism, and inadequate and overcrowded housing.

Although behavioural problems during childhood are normal and often fleeting, the report highlights that some children and young people can get stuck in challenging patterns of behaviour which affect their social, emotional and learning outcomes. This in turn puts a child at risk of poorer outcomes including school exclusion.

Growing stronger together heard from parents in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, who highlighted the struggle to support their children’s wellbeing while also working long hours to make ends meet, or living in overcrowded and insecure housing. And they described how racism wore away at children’s wellbeing, making them more likely to face mental health difficulties including behavioural problems.

The report calls for national Government to commit to ending child poverty through a Child Poverty Act, and to increase funding for local councils to invest in parenting programmes and address the housing crisis. It also calls on local councils to develop an overarching strategy to support children and families impacted by trauma who present with behavioural problems. The report says that mental health and educational settings should embed anti-racist approaches to tackle inequalities in experience and outcomes.

Kadra Abdinasir, Associate Director of Policy at Centre for Mental Health, said: “Children’s mental health is getting progressively poorer in the UK. Our report shows that children’s healthy social development depends on having their basic needs met – enough money to live on, a safe, warm home, and loving relationships. For families facing deprivation, destitution and discrimination, it’s a struggle to provide these and give their children a mentally healthy start in life. When children then struggle in school, they get labelled as having behavioural problems, punished and sometimes excluded, all of which makes things worse. This urgently needs to change. Every child deserves a mentally healthy start in life and a fair chance in school.”

Kamna Muralidharan, Children’s Mental Health Programme Director at Impact on Urban Health, said: “We have already heard from a lot of local children and families about the distress caused by unsafe and overcrowded housing, unaffordable food bills and lack of safe green spaces to play. We also know from our trusted community partners, particularly the Black-led organisations and support groups, that racism causes trauma from a very young age. Both directly, in the ways children and families are treated, and because it stops children being able to access safe and compassionate support.

“We are pleased to see several of Centre for Mental Health’s policy recommendations focusing on these socio-economic health inequalities, trying to reduce the harm caused to so many children and families. We need policy makers to understand that without a commitment to anti-poverty, any children’s mental health intervention will be a sticking plaster at best.”

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