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Child mental health linked to families who struggle

Parental mental health a risk factor for children

Jo Carlowe

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Children whose families struggle to get on are more likely to have mental disorders, new analysis shows.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) looked at data on children aged two to 16 years, living in England, and found higher rates of mental disorder across all ages in those who lived in families that struggled to function well.


Parental mental health was also found to be a key factor in understanding the mental health of children, even when taking other factors such as household income and ethnicity into account.

The percent of children with a mental disorder was 25% in children aged 11 to 16 in unhealthy functioning families, as against 11% in health functioning families.

In measuring family functioning, researchers looked at issues such as whether family members show affection for one another, whether they communicate openly or whether emotional upsets were resolved.

Aside from how well a family functions, this research revealed that the mental health of parents was also associated with mental disorders in children. Children of parents who had difficulties with their own mental health were more likely to have a mental disorder, when compared with children of parents who did not show signs of a common mental disorder.

The research also found that children of all ages whose parents were in receipt of welfare benefits were more likely to have a mental disorder than those whose parents were not in receipt of these benefits.

This new analysis also took a first look at some additional factors which are linked with higher rates of mental disorder in children.

It found that children aged two to 10 years old living with step-siblings showed around double the rates of mental disorder, than those who did not live with step-siblings. But this higher rate could be associated with problems that may be related to family break-ups, such as divorce, moving house or changing schools.

This might explain why school aged children (aged five to 16 years) from lone parent families experience greater rates of mental disorder, compared with those who live with married parents. This was most noticeable in secondary school aged children (11 to 16 years) of single lone parents (who have never been married).

Another newly-examined factor looked at the association between the qualification level of parents and their children’s mental health. It found primary school aged children of parents without qualifications were twice as likely to have a mental disorder as those with qualifications (16.8% and 8.4% respectively).

The publication of this new data has been welcomed by mental health charity Mind. Vicki Nash, its head of policy and campaigns said: “The figures highlight what we hear day in, day out at Mind - that your housing situation can have a significant impact on your mental health and that the broken benefits system disproportionately impacts those of us who need support because of a mental health problem, regardless of your age.

“The data also shows that parents’ mental health has a marked impact on the mental wellbeing of their children. By supporting parents’ mental health there is a potential double dividend for their children. However, it is also important that we invest directly in the mental health of young people today. The NHS Long Term Plan provides an opportunity to do that – with specific commitments to new services, better crisis care and a smoother transition from child and adolescent to adult mental health services.”

She added: “While these figures give a clear picture of the prevalence of mental health problems among children and young people, much more information is needed to find out why these problems are developing in the first place and how they can be prevented. Mind has begun tackling this through our Whole School Approach, including talking to teachers, parents and young people who have told us they need more support for their mental health and wellbeing.”

Also responding, Dympna Cunnane, CEO of Our Time, the only UK charity solely supporting children whose parents have a mental illness, told OnMedica: “I have read the ONS report with interest. The mental health of parents is one of the risk factors that has not been recognised or addressed in policy or service provision. We are working towards breaking the intergenerational cycle which the ONS report highlights. Having a parent with a mental illness does not mean the children will follow in their parents footsteps, we have shown that relatively modest interventions can have a dramatic impact on family functioning and the outcomes for children.”

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