Vivienne Nathanson: No single cause; no easy answers to help youngsters

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The Independent Online

There is no one reason why childhood mental health disorders are on the rise. The answer to the question is extremely complex and is a mixture of genetics, environment and there may be some increase due to the ability of doctors to diagnose mental health disorders more effectively.

The stresses and complexities of modern-day life also play a part. Just because a child is brought up in a deprived environment or is a victim of a family break-up does not necessarily mean they will develop a mental health disorder but those life events may trigger a pre-disposition to developing a problem or just reduce the ability of the child to cope. We can say for certain that deprivation, family and financial instability and poor environmental surroundings do not help children flourish.

Family make-up also has an impact on the mental health of young people. Reconstituted families where there are stepchildren have a higher rate of mental problems. What that tells us is there may be circumstances where we think children have adjusted well but the situation may be stressful and we need to think how to give them support.

More research needs to be carried out on the role of diet because, again, we can be certain that children benefit from a balanced healthy diet with the right vitamins, minerals and complex carbohydrates.

Anecdotally, teachers and parents talk of how behaviour and concentration improves with a balanced diet and how it deteriorates with processed sugary food. That was evident in Jamie Oliver's recent TV series about school dinners. It is vital more research is done to find out for certain how important diet is in preventing and controlling mental health disorders.

It is particularly worrying that children who are excluded from school do not automatically receive a psychiatric assessment. It would be an ideal opportunity to assess a potentially high risk group and ensure they receive appropriate treatment. The BMA acknowledges increased funding has been directed to childhood mental health services but the demand is still exceptionally high and often leaves doctors unable to see and treat children as quickly as they would like. That has to change.

A key barrier to young people using mental health services is they are not tailored to meet their needs. Young people are more likely to access services open after school and not too far from where they live. A key issue is that children from deprived families are least likely to seek help.

The good news is children who are diagnosed early and receive the right kind of specialist treatment have the best chance of reaching their full potential in life. It is the duty of government, doctors, parents, teachers and the whole community to make sure all children have a fair chance in life.

The author is head of science and ethics at the BMA