Tackling mental illness in children should begin before they are born, at a time when expectant mothers can suffer mental health problems, say councils.
The Local Government Association, which represents more than 370 councils, says this can have a potentially devastating impact on their new-born child which could set their personal and emotional development back by years.
A new report, Best start in life, formally unveiled at the LGA’s Annual Conference in Bournemouth, says early interactions and experiences directly affect how a child’s brain develops.
One in five mothers during pregnancy or in their first year experience depression, anxiety or in extreme cases, post-birth psychosis.
Councils say it is vital that intervention is made at this critical stage to reduce the chances of mental illness developing in children.
Today’s report cites research which shows that if a baby’s development falls behind during the first years of life, they are more at risk of falling behind later on in life, and being more likely to develop mental illness.
By the age of five nearly one in four children do not reach the expected level in language and communication skills and a fifth fall short of the expected level in personal, social and emotional development, according to figures from the Early Year Foundation Stage Profiles.
One in 10 school children (aged five to 16) – or three pupils in every classroom – has a diagnosable mental health problem such as conduct disorder, anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder or depression.
Those aged 11 to 25 with mental illness are also twice as likely to leave or have left school without qualifications.
Councils, which have responsibility for 0-5 public health services, are already coming up with innovative ways of providing support to children and families, through parenting programmes and ensuring there is help for younger people as they get older.
Knowsley Council has been piloting a scheme called Building Bonds to help mothers who are struggling with mental health problems.
A total of 158 people were helped with extremely positive results. Forty per cent of women who were on anti-depressant drugs are no longer taking them, 81 per cent reduced their drinking or drugs intake and 100 per cent reported an improvement in their mental health and maternal attachment.
Portsmouth’s Little Minds Matter programme supported parents with mental health problems and helped reduce the risk of that affecting their babies.
One to one support was given to mothers and their children up until the age of two. Many were suffering from depression or anxiety or struggling with traumatic experiences such as domestic violence.
About 100 families a year were helped with 90 per cent reporting improved relationships with their babies and 80 per cent an increased ability to understand and cope with their difficulties.
Luton’s early years strategy Flying Start places a major emphasis on helping children’s emotional and social development. Its pilot programme Sign 4 Little Talkers aims to encourage positive communication and behaviour among two and three-year-olds.
Taking place in nurseries and other early years settings, specially-designed books and dolls teach children signed vocabulary so they can express their emotions.
The Local Government Association’s Portfolio Holder for Community Well-being, Cllr Izzi Seccombe, said:
‘The fact we are raising the issue of children’s mental health at our annual conference highlights how much of a priority it is for councils, many of whom are running innovative programmes to address this important issue.
‘What is deeply concerning is that there are substantial numbers of children and young people who are increasingly struggling with mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression and self-harm, in addition to a minority who face potentially life-threatening conditions such as eating disorders and psychosis.
‘But to understand the scale of the problem, you have to go back to before a child’s birth, with one in five mothers experiencing mental illness during pregnancy or in the first year, which can have a potentially devastating impact on a child if left untreated.
‘This emphasises the need to intervene early, so we can help children and young people build and maintain good mental health which has lasting positive consequences throughout their lives, both inside and outside school.’