The outlook for children’s mental health in 2024

Michael Samuel
Friday, January 12, 2024

As we enter a third consecutive year of a cost-of-living crisis, finding ways to look after your mental health and that of the people around you must be a priority.

Samuel: 'Be honest with children about problems'.
Samuel: 'Be honest with children about problems'.

The shift towards greater awareness around mental health conditions in recent years is hugely positive but the number of people struggling with these conditions is still far too high. As chair of Anna Freud, the mental health charity for children and families, I see that many young people are negatively impacted by their mental health. Shockingly, 1 in 5 children and young people has a probable mental health disorder in England. This must change.

Mental health struggles affect people from all backgrounds and walks of life, but social context plays a key role in the severity of their impacts thanks to the long-standing link between poverty and poor mental health. More than 14 million people (including four million children) in the UK are living in poverty and are being disproportionately affected by the rising cost of living.

Research shows 1 in 7 parents and carers weren’t able to afford Christmas presents for their children at the end of 2023 but, beyond gifts, people across Britain may not be able to afford even basic necessities.

This winter, many will struggle to feed themselves or their families and may be forced to choose between heating their homes or putting food on the table. 

The impacts of this reality are severe. High levels of material deprivation can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, particularly during the holidays, when children can feel jealous of other people’s experiences and embarrassed about their own. There are also considerable physical consequences for children living in food poverty. If a child’s nutritional needs are not met, their ability to grow as well as to learn and develop emotional wellbeing is considerably hindered. In the early years, the impact is even greater.

The Princess of Wales, Anna Freud’s Royal Patron, has drawn much needed attention this issue through her Shaping Us campaign which is shining a spotlight on the critical importance of early childhood in shaping the adults we become and underscoring the importance of addressing youth mental health.

To address the twin challenges of food poverty and mental illness, we need a multi-pronged approach. There are some excellent charities providing support for those in need through food banks, and individuals are also stepping up. Former PM Gordon Brown, for example, has recently kick-started the Multibank initiative, aimed at the provision of non-food items. But when it comes to protecting young people’s mental health, there are some steps we can all take.

We can start by being honest. Children are incredibly perceptive so sugar-coating reality or minimising a child’s concerns is not always a good idea. Parents and caregivers need to be honest with their children without being catastrophic as denying a problem’s existence may lead to them trying to manage their burdens on their own.

One of the most dangerous things for children in challenging times is to feel isolated. Encouraging them to share their worries is important, as it conveys that they will not have to face their problems alone. The famous African proverb, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ resonates strongly.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice is to find things to celebrate together. Children aren’t the only ones at risk of being alone and by reaching out to others facing similar challenges, we can build communities of support that will long outlast the cost-of-living crisis.

  • Michael Samuel is chair of Anna Freud

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