CHILDREN under five in the UK are at risk of suffering from lifelong mental health conditions which could be prevented with the right care and support, says the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The College has published a landmark report, Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: the case for action, which calls on the Government to prioritise the mental health of babies and young children.

Early action is vital, given half of mental health conditions arise by age 14 and many of these start to develop in the first years of life. In England prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 100,000 (5.5 per cent) of two to four-year-olds struggled with anxiety, behavioural disorders and neurodevelopmental disorders. Globally, an estimated one in five (20.1 per cent) of children aged between one and seven years have a mental health condition.

There are many risk factors which contribute to a child developing a mental health condition, such as smoking, alcohol or substance use during pregnancy, socioeconomic deprivation and adverse childhood experiences like domestic violence or physical and emotional neglect and abuse.

Most babies, under fives and their parents do not receive the support they need to address these issues both during and after pregnancy. Mental health services are under-resourced and inconsistent commissioning is putting children’s immediate and long-term mental health at significant risk. The College is calling on the Government to introduce new specialist services and ensure every family has access to the support they need, regardless of where they live.

The Government must also prioritise the development of a cross-government early childhood strategy, workforce and training plan, and improve data collection on early childhood outcomes to better understand and support young children.

By outlining evidence-based solutions, the report will help to prevent children from suffering from mental illness. It also highlights a multi-agency approach to improve access to care and support.

Early interventions are critical to preventing mental health conditions, as well as stopping these conditions from becoming more severe and difficult to treat. By supporting babies and children in the first five years of life they will go on to become productive adults who can fully contribute to the wellbeing of our society. The report warns a failure to effectively tackle this issue could breach statutory legislation and the under fives right to mental health under Article 24 of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

UNICEF UK joins several leading health organisations in supporting the report, including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, the Parent-Infant Foundation, the Associate Directors of Public Health and the School and Public Health Nurses Association.

Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist and Registrar of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Dr Trudi Seneviratne OBE said: “The period from conception to five is essential in securing the healthy development of children into adulthood. Unfortunately, these years are often not given the importance they should be, and many people are unaware of what signs they should be looking out for.

“Parents, carers and society as a whole have a critical role to play. This includes securing positive relationships and a nurturing environment that supports the building blocks of a child’s social emotional and cognitive development. The majority of under fives with mental health conditions are not currently receiving the level of support necessary to help them become productive, functioning adults and reach their full potential. That’s why we’re calling on the Government to roll out comprehensive services in every neighbourhood and region to ensure no family is left to struggle alone.

“Our report makes nine recommendations to bridge the current treatment and prevention gap. We sincerely hope these measures will have a broad and lasting impact on the lives of children being born today and countless generations to come.”

Joanna Moody, Senior Policy Advisor for Child Mental Health and Wellbeing at UNICEF UK, said: “Mental health in infancy and early childhood is often overlooked, yet it lays the foundations for a child’s future. The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health report provides a strong evidence base for action to prioritise mental health right from the start of children’s lives.

“Many services play a vital role in supporting babies’ and young children’s mental health, and that of their parents and caregivers, including early childhood education, social services, maternity, health visiting, primary care, mental health and the voluntary sector.”

* Read: Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: the case for action here.

* Source: Royal College of Psychiatrists