Children today are `healthier but less happy'

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The Independent Online
The health of Britain's children has improved dramatically in the past two decades, but increased suicide rates and the prevalence of psychiatric disorders suggest social and economic changes pose a new threat, according to a new report.

Infant and child mortality rates - although still highest in lower social classes and ethnic minorities - have halved since 1971, a faster fall than in any other age group. It is most marked in cot deaths, childhood cancers and accidents.

Children are taller, heavier, have better teeth and suffer fewer infectious diseases. But while they are physically healthier, there are signs they are more miserable.

According to the first comprehensive children's health survey compiled by the Office of Population Censuses and Survey, the number of boys aged 15-19 committing suicide has increased by 45 per cent - compared with a 24 per cent reduction among girls of the same age - and up to one in five children suffers psychiatric disturbance. Moderate or severe behaviour problems are present in 7 per cent of inner-city three-year-olds.

Harmful behaviour - such as smoking, drinking and drug-taking - is proving difficult to discourage. Today's children are fatter and less fit than their parents. By late adolescence, 30 per cent of young people smoke, and a third of boys and more than half of girls do not take regular exercise.

Child health experts claimed yesterday that the report showed that further improvements in children's health may depend as much on tackling social and economic ills as scientific advance. In an introduction to the report, Professor Eva Alberman, of the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine, St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, said: "There remains a need for scientific advances in the more resistant diseases in childhood, but above all children need to be loved, to live under good conditions, and receive the benefits of a good education."

Peter Wilson, director of Young Minds, the children's mental health charity, said recent studies showed an increase in "psycho-social disorders" such as drug abuse, depression, delinquency and eating disorders. He believes they indicate increased pressures on the young from the breakdown of families and other social factors such as increased unemployment.

He believes the discrepancy between suicide rates for teenage boys and girls reflected the improved status of females and the confusion of increasingly redundant males.

"Socio-economic factors have combined with ideological changes - like feminism - to create a whole new relationship between men and women. While women can now work or opt for the traditional role of mother, unemployment has robbed men of their old role as hunter, gatherer and provider. It is time we really looked at the impact of social changes on children's health."

Dr Angela Dale, of Manchester University, said that in the last 20 years there had been an increase in the number of children living in households with no full-time wage-earner.The number of homeless families had tripled during the 1980s and 80 per cent had dependent children or a pregnant mother. "Medical solutions are needed but they are not the complete answer," she said.

tThe Health of our Children - Decennial Supplement, Series DS no 11; HMSO; pounds 21.