Breaking the intergenerational cycle of mental illness: the case for prevention

In January 2020, The Pulse released an article stating that “GPs are facing increasing difficulties in getting their child referrals accepted by NHS mental health trusts in England unless their patients are severely mentally unwell.”

It’s a story we hear time and again among families, schools, professionals and other local services that we work with. Whilst The Pulse article focuses on children’s mental health services, parallels can be drawn with adult mental health and its impact on children. 

Parents with mental health issues have told us that they repeatedly asked for help before they became seriously ill, only to get turned away, resulting in hospitalisation, or temporary or even permanent, separation from their children. Of course, this has a negative impact on the children, which is often overlooked until the children become unwell themselves.

More and more we are hearing that the only way to get help is to reach a crisis point. Furthermore, the debate around access to mental health services for both children and adults often neglects the root causes of mental illness. For example, recent studies and research have highlighted that parental mental illness is the biggest risk factor for children’s mental health [1].

Other significant factors include childhood trauma, as well as social and environmental factors. Despite the breadth and strength of evidence that exists for early intervention, the cycle of mental ill-health continues due to under-investment in preventative services for both children and families.

Our recent conference on parental mental illness and its impacts at the Royal Society of Medicine brought together academic researchers, GPs, school nurses and other front-line services to share knowledge and experience about what is needed to help break the intergenerational cycle of mental illness.

We understand that public services are doing the best that they can with the resources available to them. However, it is clear from all that joined us at the RSM conference, and followed the conversations, that there needs to be a fundamental shift at a national policy level to properly invest in preventative services so that local authorities are empowered to allocate funds and resources for early help and support. This would then ensure that children and families who do not yet meet thresholds for critical or statutory services are not left isolated and at risk.

The knowledge and expertise to support mental health already exist within the public and voluntary sector, but investment is required to effectively support the scale of needs and allow doctors, nurses and others to not only ‘Think Family’, but to commission wrap-around care for the whole family. The solution does not have to be costly and far outweighs the financial and human cost of doing nothing. In fact, our studies show that the cost of non-intervention costs the UK government in excess of £17 billion a year [2]. 

Too many people are falling in the gaps between services.  We have to ensure that both parents and children are supported effectively before they reach a point of crisis, and get the recognition, help and support they need to thrive despite their adversities and challenges. This is why Our Time campaigns for recognition of children of parents with mental illness to ensure they are counted, and that funding is allocated for provision at a national policy level. 

In 2020, we will also be licensing our model to offer local authorities an effective integration project, whereby we train local teams to deliver simple and low-cost interventions to support children, young people and families impacted by parental mental illness.

  1. ‘Children whose families struggle to get on are more likely to have mental disorders’: ONS report, 2019
  2. The Cost of Late Intervention: Early Intervention Foundation analysis, 2016