Why early intervention matters

In the news this week, NHS figures show that the number of children referred to emergency mental healthcare in England has increased by more than 50% in three years.

This increase means more than 600 mentally ill children a week are deteriorating to such a state that they have reached crisis point. Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) are struggling to meet the need, with many children stuck on a waiting list for around five months.

Talking to The Guardian, Dr Elaine Lockhart, the chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ college’s child and adolescent faculty, says, “The evidence shows us that children who receive support quickly are less likely to develop long-term conditions that negatively affect their education, social development and health in later life.”

Unsurprisingly, for the crisis to be averted, intervention must happen early. But what is ‘early’? When children (or their parents) reach out for help? When things might already be desperate? What if the intervention was as early as, say, birth, rather than at crisis point? What if parents, children – families – were supported from the very beginning?

The Trussell Trust recently shared a thought on X (previously Twitter): “Though cost of living payments provide some support, they do not fix the underlying factors driving people to food banks. We need long-term change.”

We do need long term change.

There are many reasons that may contribute to children developing mental health conditions, including heredity, biology, psychological trauma and environmental stress. In the moment, each child will require support specific to their context but what if we (society) wrapped our arms around families in a way that enables resilience despite unavoidable stressors that may lead to mental health struggles.

What if we tried to fix some of the underlying factors? If we could come alongside parents and children before there is a reason to ask for help in the first place…

The Mental Health Foundation reports that children and adults living in households in the lowest 20% income bracket in Great Britain are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest. Poverty is an underlying factor. If we could eradicate poverty, the number of children in crisis needing to access CAMHS would be significantly reduced (as would the number of people walking into food banks). Imagine! Reality says that there is no quick fix for the 14.2 million people (including 4.2 million children) facing disadvantages in the UK but we can still mitigate the impact of poverty.

At Kids Matter, our vision is to see every child in need raised in a strong family so that no child is written off simply because of the circumstances they are in. Poverty impacts a parent’s ability to manage stressful events and use effective parenting skills, which can have a negative impact on the parent-child relationship. Under these circumstances, children are more likely to struggle with a range of social, emotional and behavioural issues.

Our parenting programmes are early interventions that offer a space for parents to grow in confidence, competence and community. With increased confidence, a parent is able to manage stressful and challenging situations with warm, firm and encouraging parenting and this has a positive impact on their relationship with their child, improving child wellbeing.

As Dr Lockhart says, children who receive support quickly are less likely to develop long-term conditions. The ripple effect of actual early intervention could be seismic: happier families with happier children, doing better in their exams, getting better jobs, living happier, healthier lives in healthier communities.

To find out more about our vision to see every child in need raised in a strong family, visit kidsmatter.org.uk.

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