Prevention: the new holy grail of treating mental illness – Our Time’s response

We write in response to the recent Guardian article on prevention and mental illness.

We are pleased to see a shift towards addressing mental health issues and the origins of these before they become an illness. Currently, the whole system is geared towards illness. In fact, we have an illness service rather than a health service because you have to get ill to get help. You have to get very ill to get help because there is not enough money for early help and prevention. 

We are caught up in a system where the early signs of distress in children and young people are being ignored, waiting for them to worsen. Even then, these children are blamed for being difficult and often excluded or isolated because of their behaviour.

The roots of some behaviour problems are in the home environment where there may be huge stress and mental health problems to do with the parents. A recent NHS/ONS report on mental health clearly states that the biggest risk factor for children and young people’s mental health is parental mental illness and family discord. 

Schools are the other obvious place where these early signs are noticed and can be seen to affect the child’s cognitive development and social adjustment, including, very importantly, the ability to enjoy learning and making friends.

However, the schools have far too much to deal with, and with no training in these areas. Naturally, they are reluctant to become family therapists or councillors as their job is to teach, and with less funding to even manage that, they are exhausted and frustrated by the ever growing demands placed on them.

A recent ITV documentary which followed people from age 7 through to the age of 63 (now) showed clearly the long term impact of childhood experiences and the impact of non-intervention.

Prevention needs to address the environmental stresses on children and families, which means a whole system approach and a sharing of responsibility across all the support services in the interests of the family. This needs to start in the early years and not at the point of crisis, when currently, this is the only time support is given.