Most of our children lead happy lives, but a minority are seriously troubled or disturbed. Yet only a quarter of those affected are getting any specialist help. This neglect is extremely unjust but it is also short-sighted because these children are highly likely to grow up to become troubled and disturbed adults.

Upset girl

One in ten 5-16 year olds now has clinically significant mental health difficulties - ranging from anxiety, depression, over activity, inattentiveness (ADHD) and anorexia - through to conduct disorders such as uncontrollable or destructive behaviour.

Mental health difficulties have increased because the quality of children’s experience has deteriorated. The key factors that directly affect mental health include living apart from your father (which increased difficulties by over 40%), family conflict, poor mental health of a parent, living in rented housing and ‘’more than two adverse life events.’’ The effect of not having a stable family life or stable friendships is particularly striking. In nearly every survey the proportion of children with behavioural difficulties is at least 50% higher in families with single parents or step parents than in families where both parents are still together. Ninety per cent of adolescents convicted of crime had shown conduct disorder in childhood.

So what can be done about the problem? There are a number of well-developed treatments that have good records of success and are recommended by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Usually the basic ideas are drawn either from cognitive behaviour therapy or from interventions derived from social learning theory that change family interactions.

But at present only a quarter of children with mental health difficulties get any specialist help. To ensure maximum effectiveness we need a five-year plan for child psychological therapy. This would have two key features: a plan to train or retrain at least one thousand child psychological therapists in the skills of evidence-based therapy and assessment, and a plan for progressively establishing NICE-recommended services throughout the country.

Relieving this suffering would probably pay for itself. A child with a conduct disorder costs the taxpayer £70,000 in crime, social care and remedial costs by the time they are twenty eight compared to £7,000 for a child with no such problems.

Children's evidence

I have good days and bad days. Some days I feel pretty and other days I feel really ugly, and when I have those days I pile on the make-up. I think that I need to love myself more.
- 13-year-old girl

I would change in my life my sadness.
- 9-year-old girl

I sometimes feel that noone wants me or likes me.
- 11-year-old girl

Read The Children’s Society's view on mental health.