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Poverty, Parental Expectations and Children’s Mental Health


I see that the government has announced new measures to address the nation’s mental health. Included is provision for new mothers to have improved access to mental health services with the aim of ensuring that perinatal mental health problems are identified and treated quickly.

There will also be better services for children, one in ten of whom, according to a recent report by the mental health charity, MIND, has a diagnosable mental health condition.

A few pages further on in the same newspaper where I read about these new initiatives, I came across an article reporting findings from a Joseph Rowntree Foundation study on family income. According to the Foundation, six in ten households, where there is at least one person in work, are struggling to make ends meet and more and more families risk falling below minimum income standards even when one or more adults is in work. The Policy and Research Manager at the Foundation commented that more jobs needed and they must also be better ones.

On a long train journey recently, I fell into conversation with a young woman who told me that she had married five years ago and desperately wanted to have children but that she and her husband (both employed in the NHS) had decided that they could not afford to bring a baby into the world. They didn’t want to risk having a baby, being acutely short of money, and perhaps endangering their relationship if both were to become stressed over the family finances.

On the next leg of my journey, I spoke to another older woman who told me how she and her partner had put themselves through several cycles of IVF before finally achieving a pregnancy that she had managed to carry to term. She told me that her pregnancy had been the most joyful time of her life and she had loved attending antenatal classes. However, in retrospect, she thought that she had heard only what she wanted to hear at the classes because the shock of new parenthood had been overwhelming. Her partner, with whom she had been living for 15 years, threatened to leave her, and she asked herself on a daily basis why she had ever thought it would be so wonderful to have a baby.

It seems to me that all these stories tie up. If parents are struggling financially, they may well become depressed; research tells us that children of depressed parents have a 50% risk of developing depression themselves before the age of 20. Both poverty and unrealistic expectations of what parenting involves may precipitate hostile interactions with babies and young children, placing children’s development at risk.

The links between family poverty, parental unrealistic expectations and children’s mental ill health are very clear. Ensuring that young (and not so young) people can afford to start and sustain a family, and that they understand the way in which their engagement with their babies and toddlers shapes their future mental health, must be a commitment of any democratic government. We would have far less need for (expensive) mental health services if there was a little more money and a little more education in and about the Very Early Years.

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