A global warming of the mind

The number of psychologically damaged children in Britain is reaching epidemic proportions. And it's a problem that is not getting the recognition it deserves. These children can rarely speak up for themselves, and parents may not recognise what's going on or be too embarrassed or ill-informed to know what to do.

A 2004 survey of British school children conducted by the Tavistock Clinic and University College London found that one in four probably needed professional psychological help. Meanwhile, a team of researchers from the institute of psychiatry at King's College London, led by psychologist Dr Stephan Collishaw, has examined whether our children are more psychiatrically disturbed compared with past generations. In the first such study of its kind, the team examined three separate but massive data sets.

Results showed adolescent behavioural problems - including lying - had more than doubled over the past 25 years, and affected both sexes, all social classes and all family types.

Most child psychiatrists lay the blame on social trends such as spiralling divorce rates, the rise of the dual-earner household and more children than ever being looked after in day-care facilities of varying quality.

Professor Michael Rutter of the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in London, perhaps the most eminent child psychiatrist in the UK, points to an increase in the availability of drugs, a lengthening of adolescence and a growing emphasis on educational attainment. And it seems that money alone will not solve the problem. A recent study by the department of psychiatry at St Bartholomew's hospital found that although Bangladeshi pupils in east London were socially and economically disadvantaged, they had a lower risk of psychological distress than their classmates. This suggests that emotional well-being has little to do with material circumstances and more to do with the cultural context in which children are raised.

The real danger, however, is a "snowballing" effect of distress. In the conclusion to their study, the King's College team warn that relatively modest changes in rates of adolescent behavioural problems in one generation may increase the exposure to risks in the next. Troubled children grow into distressed parents who produce a yet more disturbed next generation. It seems that our children's mental health is like global warming; a danger which increases so imperceptibly that no one notices it until it's too late.

Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry, and director of the Centre for Public Engagement, King's College London.

His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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