Family Matters - as featured in The House Magazine

We won’t improve children’s mental health without supporting wider family relationships, writes Fiona Bruce MP

Originally published in The House magazine on Friday 14th July 2017 

Surely no Member of Parliament would disagree that much more needs to be done to address the burgeoning mental health challenges experienced by young people today. The Prime Minister herself has referred to the ‘burning injustice’ faced by those suffering from mental health problems – an injustice which she has said ‘demands a new approach from government and society as a whole.’

It is imperative that this ‘new approach’ to mental health provision recognises that family factors like parental conflict and relationship breakdown are major drivers of poor mental health in children and young people. This, in turn, drives poor academic achievement, undermines their ability to secure and maintain a good job and hampers their social mobility. Moreover, our high prevalence of mental health problems is undermining our national productivity and competitiveness. There are therefore powerful economic as well as social reasons for preventing and treating these problems effectively.

A growing body of academic and survey evidence points to the significant impact of poorly functioning and broken family relationships on young lives. Data from over 42,000 children across 75 Children and Young People’s Mental Health (CYPMH) Services showed that family relationships problems were the biggest presenting problem.

And as Gervase McGrath, CEO of Visyon – the children’s mental health charity in my constituency of Congleton, of which I am Patron, said ‘We see cases where children and young people become the battleground for warring parents and this is detrimental to their wellbeing. With the right support and advice for parents experiencing family breakdown, children and young people are more likely to gain the resilience to survive this trauma in their lives.’

So, in this ‘new approach’, there needs to be substantial growth in the provision of effective relationship and family support for the whole family, where a child experiences poor mental health. Increasingly, evidence is showing that when this is offered, it can lead to positive outcomes.

There is an urgent need for Services to recognise the role wider family and relationship difficulties play in CYPMH difficulties and for those Services to offer treatment to mitigate the negative effects of these: this would require more frequent and systematic referrals of parents for relationship counselling when needed, or, even better, the extended use of couple counselling within CYPMH Services themselves, as well as training in this area for professionals and frontline practitioners in this field.

However, we must also avoid simply a focus on treatment downstream. Given what we now know about the roots of mental illness, we must ensure early help is in place to support families and help prevent children and young people from developing mental health problems in the first instance. We need to do more to ensure individuals and families develop stronger relationships, and offer early support when cracks first appear.

Importantly, we must also normalise such help. No family relationship goes without its challenges at some point in time, and it should be no mark of defeat to seek help before problems become irreparable. When a person has a physical illness it goes without saying that they seek medical intervention, and often at an early stage; why should it be any different for relational distress?

Encouraging the development of Family Hubs - where statutory and voluntary services work together to provide a one stop shop of early help for all families, including mental health services, relationship support, father involvement and parenting programmes - is vital. This should encompass, but by no means exclusively focus on, support for troubled families.

I and others are not calling for a huge increase in spending on mental health (although it is critical that any new funding the Government provides actually reaches those for whom it is intended, something that urgently also requires Government attention); what we are emphasising is the need for more holistic family-based early interventions. Such an approach is essential if we are serious about ensuring that responses to children’s mental health problems are more cost-effective, deliver considerably better outcomes and, crucially help prevent a potential lifetime of mental distress for many young people today.

Fiona Bruce is Conservative Member of Parliament for Congleton and Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.