By Dr Nicholas Kofi Adjei, Research Associate at the Department of Public Health, Policy and Systems, University of Liverpool
Child poverty is rising in the UK. There are also concerns about the deterioration in adult mental health. Presently, one in six children and young people in the UK grapple with mental health issues, while one in three children face poverty.
Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rising levels of poverty and mental health problems posed a critical challenge for the UK. Recognising the intrinsic link between household poverty and parental mental health and later outcomes, it is crucial to explore the extent of their impact on young people’s health and identify effective strategies to tackle these problems.
Understanding the link: trajectories of child poverty and parental mental health on young people’s mental health
Commissioned by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) our investigation sought to understand the impact of childhood adversity, including poverty, on young people’s mental health. In another study funded by the Health Foundation we assessed the role of societal and family-level protective factors in promoting resilience. Our recent findings, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health used longitudinal data from the UK millennium cohort study, tracking 10,500 children from 9 months to 14 years to unpick these issues.
The Impact and Economic Costs
We identified five distinct trajectories of poverty and parental mental health: low poverty and good parental mental health (46·8%), persistent poor primary caregiver’s mental health (11·3%), persistent poor secondary caregiver’s mental health (9·2%), persistent poverty (21·8%) and persistent poverty and poor parental mental health (10·9%). We further assessed their associations with mental health outcomes at the age of 17.
We found that children who experienced poverty and poor primary or secondary caregiver mental health (53%) had worse outcomes compared to those in low poverty and good parental mental health. Those exposed to persistent poverty and poor caregiver mental health faced significantly increased risks of socioemotional behavioural problems, mental health problems, and cognitive disability. Approximately 40% of socioemotional behavioural problems at age 17 were attributable to persistent parental caregivers’ mental health problems and poverty. Notably, poverty accounted for a substantial portion of the burden of adverse adolescent developmental outcomes.
We estimate that tackling these issues could potentially lead to lifetime improvements in earnings across adolescents, equivalent to around £6.5bn.
Interventions for Positive Change
Efforts to reduce child poverty and parental mental health problems could result in a substantial reduction in poor health across the UK population’s life course, provided the right policies and interventions are put in place. Immediate policy considerations should include retaining the Universal Credit uplift, reversing changes to the welfare system contributing to rising child poverty, reinvesting in support services and preventive services like children’s centres, and enhancing access to mental health services for families.
Our latest study, commissioned by the Health Foundation, also showed that policies and practices focusing on building strong and supportive families have the potential to improve outcomes for young people, including mental health. Addressing the interconnected challenges of household poverty and mental health issues is not only a moral imperative but also an investment in a healthier and more prosperous future for the UK.