Economic and Social Research Council
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Children from poorer backgrounds more likely to have mental health problems

Children whose parents are from poorer backgrounds are more likely to have diagnosable mental health problems, according to new research from the UCL Institute of Education and Centre for Mental Health.

Children of the New Century: Mental health findings from the Millennium Cohort Study looks at the mental health of 11-year-old children living in the UK. It shows that about one in ten (10.3 per cent) of 11-year-olds in the UK has a mental health problem according to parents - or eight percent as reported by teachers. Symptoms include hyperactivity, conduct problems and peer problems as well as emotional problems.

The report finds that children from low-income households are four times more likely than those in the highest income group to have mental health problems. It also suggests that not living with both natural parents is associated with mental health problems in children. Geography too has an impact – 11-year-olds in Scotland have a significantly lower prevalence of hyperactivity and peer problems than those in the rest of the UK.

The research will be highlighted at the event ‘Childhood mental health and social-emotional skills: new findings and policy implications’, as part of the annual Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Festival of Social Science.

“Socio-economic differences are clearly a factor in mental health among children,” says Dr Leslie Gutman, Research Director at the UCL Institute of Education. “There is also some evidence to suggest that this link between mental health and income has become more pronounced in recent years, and has more of an impact on children than on adults.”

In order to investigate these issues, Dr Gutman and her colleagues are conducting an ESRC-funded study focusing on the incidence and prevalence of mental health problems among children, as identified by the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) in 2012.

The MCS is a longitudinal study following a large sample of children born in the UK at the start of the 21st century. It measures children’s mental health using a questionnaire based on reports from parents and teachers in the previous six months. This questionnaire distinguishes between conduct problems, hyperactivity and inattention, emotional problems and peer problems.

To assess trends over time, Dr Gutman and her team made comparisons with children of the same age in the 1999 and 2004 British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Surveys. Analyses were also carried out on how factors such as ethnicity and socio-economic background were associated with children’s mental health.

The study finds that both parents and teachers agree that the risk of mental health problems is much greater among boys, who are also more prone to conduct problems, peer problems, and hyperactivity or inattention than girls. Girls are more likely to suffer from emotional problems than other mental health problems, but there is no difference in the prevalence of emotional problems between boys and girls.

The research also highlights that ethnicity is an issue, with white boys more likely to suffer from hyperactivity and conduct problems than other groups. For girls, children of mixed ethnic background were most at-risk of experiencing these problems.

The study also found differences between parents and teachers on perceptions of several mental health problems in children. Reports by teachers suggest, for example, that hyperactivity among girls improved from 1999 to 2012, whereas those by parents indicate that they have been getting worse since 2004.

Centre for Mental Health chief executive Professor Sean Duggan said: “Mental health problems affect one in five children at some point between the ages of 3 and 11, and they cast a long shadow over a child’s life chances. Early starting behavioural problems are associated with especially high levels of disadvantage. The recent findings point to the urgent need to support children’s mental health early in life, and to the vital role of primary schools in promoting good mental health and responding to children and parents who need help.”

In the remaining two years of their project, the researchers will examine children’s trajectories of mental health problems, along with their causes and consequences.

The research findings will be discussed at a conference in London on 11 November and is invitation only. The event is being hosted by the Early Intervention Foundation as part of the ESRC’s flagship annual Festival of Social Science.

Carey Oppenheim, Early Intervention Foundation Chief Executive, said: “Many of the children and young people suffering from mental health problems might have had a different journey if they or their family had received the right help at an earlier time.

“Every child deserves the best opportunity to realise their full potential, and we know that those with well-developed social and emotional skills have a better chance of being happy and healthy adults. That is why it is so important to tackle the inequalities that exist in these vital skills between children from different backgrounds.

“As well as the wasted potential and anguish for the individual child and family, mental health problems in children and young people result in an increased cost to the public purse and wider society throughout their lives. Taxpayers spend almost £17 billion a year on dealing with the immediate consequences of social problems affecting children and young people.

“It is vital that the early signs of risk are picked up by all those across the public sector working closely with children and young people. This will allow them to work better together to use effective and timely early intervention, in order to tackle the underlying causes and stop problems worsening and having damaging effects.

Further information

Notes for editors

  1. Event: Childhood Mental Health: Trends, Contrasts and Outcomes
    Organiser: Leslie Gutman
    Date: 11 November 2015 09.00-11.00
    Venue: Early Intervention Foundation, Local Government House, Smith Square, London SW1P 3HZ
    Audience: invitation only
  2. The Festival of Social Science is run by the Economic and Social Research Council and takes place 7-14 November 2015. With events from some of the country’s leading social scientists, the Festival celebrates the very best of British social science research and how it influences our social, economic and political lives - both now and in the future. This year’s Festival of Social Science has over 200 creative and exciting events across the UK to encourage businesses, charities, government agencies, schools and college students to discuss, discover and debate topical social science issues. Press releases detailing some of the varied events and a full programme of events is availalbe on the Festival website. You can now follow updates from the Festival on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrates its 50th anniversary.
  4. About the UCL Institute of Education

    The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leader specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 and 2015 QS World University Rankings the institute was ranked number one for Education worldwide. It was shortlisted in the 'University of the Year' category of the 2014 Times Higher Education awards. In January 2014 the institute was recognised by Ofsted for its 'outstanding' initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education.  In the most recent Research Excellence Framework 94 per cent of its research was judged to be world class. On 2 December 2014 the institute became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education.

  5.  About UCL (University College London)
    Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. It is among the world's top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 35,000 students from 150 countries and over 11,000 employees. The annual income is over £1 billion. Follow UCL on Twitter @uclnews | Watch the UCL YouTube channel

  6. Centre for Mental Health is an independent charity seeking a fairer chance in life for people with mental health problems. The centre’s research aims to inspire hope, opportunity and a fair chance in life for people of all ages with or at risk of mental health problems. Follow on Twitter @CentreforMH.


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