Infant Mental Health Before Birth

There is no denying that the mental health of children and young people is in decline. Last week further data was released confirming more children and young people are requiring support for mental health issues. Worse still NHS therapeutic services are struggling to meet government targets of 18 weeks from referral to accessing support.

In the short term there is an urgent need to fill the gaps left by public health provision of youth mental health support. For our organisation the prospect of privatisation of these services is deeply unpalatable. Instead, we believe partnerships between the public and third sectors is the answer.

Infant Mental Health Awareness Week

Longer term there is also a pressing need to revise our approach to mental health. This is one of the objectives of Infant Mental Health Awareness Week – to highlight that good mental health starts even before birth. In doing so we can start to change our mind set from one of treatment to one of prevention.

In Scotland half of all diagnosable mental health problems start before a child reaches the age of 14. Providing support for Infant Mental Health during pregnancy and in the first two years can help address this. By focusing on children’s mental health and wellbeing from birth we can also increase their individual development and attainment in life.

Moving from a prescription of treatment to prevention

The failure to take a more holistic approach to mental health is costing the UK around £8bn per year. This is the cost of treating mental health issues and the economic impact of lost working days that result from conditions like depression and anxiety. Part of the problem is of course the fact we remain wedded to a ‘prescription’ of treatment rather than prevention.

This message is supported by key professionals. The Royal College of Psychiatrists Scotland overwhelmingly backed the provision of infant mental health support. Specific help for expectant mothers suffering from perinatal mental illness was also called for.

Babies cannot wait

An unborn child can be negatively impacted by the issues facing their mother and father during pregnancy. Perinatal mental health problems, domestic violence, conflict and poverty can influence a child’s development even before birth. If they are then born into the same difficult circumstances, their ability to form a strong attachment with their parents can be further compromised.

Babies’ brains make connections at 1 million times per second as they learn in the first 1000 days after birth. Family violence for instance has the same adaptions in the brain (amygdala and anterior insula) of a baby as occurs in soldiers on the battlefield. It is difficult to understand but babies, by 18 months, can develop depression and poor mental health.

Infant Mental Health Awareness Week is a great opportunity to highlight an issue that is overlooked in the media. We should all be challenged to do as much as we can to reverse this because the cost of doing nothing – both economically and socially – is one we cannot continue to pay.

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