In western societies we have pushed back the tide of physical causes of harm to the extent that most achieve the milestone of 80 years of age before dying, with a majority enjoying good health up until their final years. However, the conditions that have been kind to our bodies has not had provided the same balm to our minds, especially those of our children. Some figures:
- The 2004 UK prevalence study found that 1 in 10 children and young people between the ages of 5 and 16 suffered from a diagnosable mental illness.
- The charity Young-Minds estimate that between 1 in 12 and 1 in 15 children had self-harmed. An increase of 68% over 10 years.
- Eighty thousand children suffer from severe depression, with 8,000 being under the age of 10.
- Depression in 15-16 year olds has doubled from the 1980s to the 2000s.
- Nearly half of all adults with mental illness were diagnosed in childhood.
- The NSPCC report 3013/14 revealed that 18% of calls to Childline were from young people contemplating suicide.
This month the Duchess of Cambridge, speaking at an event on children’s mental health hosted by the charity, Place2Be, cited her thankfulness at having a ‘wonderful and secure childhood’. She was right to do so.
It is tempting to look for single causes for poor mental health, it’s, variously, the ‘internet’, too much ‘pressure to succeed’, or ‘fear of an uncertain future’. Whilst these factors undoubtedly play a role in challenging our mental health the truth is rather more complex, but is located on familiar ground. The UK prevalence study notes that chances of having a diagnosable mental illness doubles for children from one-parent families and is two and half times greater for children in families where there is no parent employed. Poverty creates stress and makes it more likely that we will pass some of this on to our kids. What really does the damage though are the experience of multiple adversities, research over the past two decades has led bare the toxic effects of poor childhoods. The ten factors, which probabilistically influence our life trajectory are well known, they represent a mix of abuse and dysfunctional family conditions, and the greater the number we experience the greater the probability that we will experience poor mental health. The impact is expressed in childhood as unhappiness and anti social behaviours, these often translate into maladaptive behaviours which include self medication strategies to keep the demons of childhood at bay, they may be seen by mental health professionals, but more often individuals lead lives of quiet desperation, resulting, for those with higher scores, in death, on average, at age 60, as a lifetime of stress expresses itself in the physical breakdown of the body. You can read more about it and get your own score by visiting www.acestudy.org/ace_score
The good news is that you are statistically very unlikely to experience poor childhood mental health if you have had a good childhood, although of course, there’s not much you can do about that now. What can we do for others? Loving our neighbour is always a good place to start. And not only if they look like us, a preening form of self-love if ever there was one! It’s those who are in some way different who are more likely to suffer, the poor, those on the other side of the sectarian divide, of other ethnicity, asylum seekers and refugees, gay or who are not of our generation, the list is endless. Living outside Eden we must accept that all is corrupted, sometimes in ways much more profound than we can imagine. But the work of the Kingdom is to act without judgement, to accept, to seek restoration, for us, for children, for families and for communities.
Trevor Spratt is based in the Children’s Research Centre in Trinity College Dublin. Formerly a social worker, his work is now concerned with examining the effects of troubled childhoods on the life course. He worships in Gilnahirk Baptist Church and is a member of the Board of Contemporary Christianity.