Damaged Children: Family Breakdown And Too Many Tests Take Their Toll On Mental Health

Children are suffering an epidemic of mental health problems due to family breakdown, body image worries and too many school tests, a report warns today.

Under far greater pressure than youngsters a generation ago, they are increasingly falling victim to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and severe anti-social behaviour, it claims.

The report, based on an inquiry by the Children’s Society, reveals 10 per cent of boys aged 11 to 15 and 13 per cent of girls have mental health problems – some 300,000 children in total.

Official estimates suggest more than a million youngsters between five and 16 have a “clinically recognisable” mental disorder.

Today’s report – compiled from the evidence of hundreds of parents, children and experts – paints a worrying picture of a generation forced to grow up too quickly, with mental health problems “on the increase”.

It carries a stark warning from an un-named expert who gave evidence to the inquiry.

It says: “There is a mental health epidemic in this country, far worse than in comparable countries and children are suffering the brunt of it.

“A growing proportion of UK children suffer from severe emotional and psychologist distress.”

Causes of mental health problems include poor family relationships, rampant marketing leading to pressure to look attractive, binge-drinking and over-testing at school, the report says.

It also singles out poor parenting, either by a lack of affection or the failure to show authority and set boundaries.

Children’s growing inactivity and their failure to take physical exercise or play outdoors is another concern.

Two-thirds of parents surveyed for the society’s Good Childhood Inquiry believed TV and computer games stopped children being active while a similar number said schools were failing to recognise the importance of exercise.

The adults polled also said family breakdown and conflict had the biggest adverse impact on children’s well-being – followed by peer pressure and celebrity culture.

More than half – 55 per cent – of respondents thought youngsters were unhappier today than their parents were as children, with just 9 per cent saying they were happier.

Children themselves cited family expectations, school pressures and anxieties over their appearance as well as bullying and peer influences, with a quarter saying they often feel depressed.

The report warns: “Children are increasingly subject to influences which require them to consume, behave and achieve like adults.”

The Children’s Society, who will issue its full conclusions on the research next year, said youngsters must be warned about binge-drinking and helped to take exercise to head off ill health.

It also suggests more generous maternity leave subsidised by the state would help tackle the root causes of mental health problems.

This latest indictment of the state of childhood follows a UNICEF survey which claimed Britain was among the worst places in the developed world for a child to grow up.

Spurred on by the bleak assessment of childhood, ministers last year produced a ten-year Children’s Plan aimed at improving children’s lives and preventing problems before they arise.

But MPs on the Commons children’s committee say the plan risks becoming a mere “wish list” because it lacks clear priorities and a timetable for implementation.

Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “There is a growing recognition of the true cost of neglecting children’s mental health and wellbeing.

“We now need to translate this growing concern into action and investment in the necessary support services.”