Young mumChildhood mental illness should be tackled before birth, by addressing any mental health problems in expectant mothers, according to a report by the Local Government Association (LGA).

The LGA, which represents more than 370 councils, says mental illness in expectant mothers can have a potentially devastating impact on their new-born child, which could set their personal and emotional development back by years.

A new report, Best start in life, unveiled at the LGA’s Annual Conference in Bournemouth, says early interactions and experiences directly affect how a child’s brain develops. 

One in 5 mothers experience depression, anxiety or, in extreme cases, psychosis during pregnancy or in the first year of their child’s life. Councils say it is vital that intervention is made at this critical stage to reduce the chances of mental illness developing in children.

The LGA’s report cites research that shows that if a baby’s development falls behind during the first years of life, they are more at risk of falling behind later on in life, and being more likely to develop mental illness.

By the age of five nearly 1 in 4 children do not reach the expected level in language and communication skills and a fifth fall short of the expected level in personal, social and emotional development, according to figures from the Early Year Foundation Stage Profiles.

One in 10 school children aged 5 to 16 has a diagnosable mental health problem such as conduct disorder, anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder or depression. Those aged 11 to 25 with mental illness are also twice as likely to leave or have left school without qualifications.

Councils, which have responsibility for public health services for children aged 0-5, are already coming up with innovative ways of providing support to children and families, through parenting programmes and ensuring there is help for younger people as they get older. For instance, the report cites work in Knowsley, Portsmouth and Luton for improving outcomes.

The LGA’s portfolio holder for community wellbeing, Cllr Izzi Seccombe, said: “The fact we are raising the issue of children’s mental health at our annual conference highlights how much of a priority it is for councils, many of whom are running innovative programmes to address this important issue.

“What is deeply concerning is that there are substantial numbers of children and young people who are increasingly struggling with mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression and self-harm, in addition to a minority who face potentially life-threatening conditions such as eating disorders and psychosis. 

“But to understand the scale of the problem, you have to go back to before a child’s birth, with one in five mothers experiencing mental illness during pregnancy or in the first year, which can have a potentially devastating impact on a child if left untreated.

“This emphasises the need to intervene early, so we can help children and young people build and maintain good mental health which has lasting positive consequences throughout their lives, both inside and outside school.”

Best start in life can be downloaded here