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Mental Health Confusion

February 15, 2019 | matt

In England, the number of children and young people seeking help from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) has more than doubled over the past two years.

Is this because of a legitimate rise in mental health problems among young people or because of better identification and diagnosis?

An NHS survey of children in England found a small rise in diagnosable emotional conditions like depression and anxiety, particularly among girls.  These results were based on full psychiatric assessments of about 10,000 young people - not your typical survey.

Under-16’s experiencing any mental health condition (including depression, anxiety, behavioural disorders and hyperactivity) rose from 11.4% to 13.6% between 1999 and 2017.  Professor Tamsin Ford, a child psychologist and researcher who developed the survey, commented:

“It (the rise) was smaller than we thought…It’s not huge, not the epidemic you see reported”

So why such a difference in the rise of diagnosable mental health conditions over almost two decades, and the rise in referrals to CAMHS in two years?  Could a sizeable chunk of the rise be down to more children seeking help for their mental health as opposed to more children being unwell?

Annual national surveys have shown a six-fold increase in self-reported conditions, suggesting that children (and their families) have a better understanding of mental health.  This could be leading to a “narrowing of the gap between problems that exist and problems that are reported”, according to Prof Ford’s research.

Another factor could be that children are identifying distressing emotions as disorders when they don’t have a diagnosable condition, which raises the question of how conditions are formally diagnosed.  The methods aren’t perfect and the lines between having a condition and not can be blurry.

There appears to be some 'mental health confusion', but one thing we know for sure is that mental health difficulties are more common with looked after children than with children not in care.

Research carried out in the UK and abroad consistently show that children in care have poorer mental health than the rest of the population.  And where comparisons have been made, the health of children in residential care is worse than that of children in foster care.

Family Care’s support team recently underwent specialist mental health first-aid training, so we are better prepared to help children in foster care who need support.

With CAMHS stretched to their limit and social media dominating children’s lives, we must continue efforts to improve young people’s understanding of mental health.  Statistics only paint part of the picture and we shouldn’t exaggerate a rise in young people’s mental health for the sake of headline news.  We don't need to, this problem isn't going anywhere soon.


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