Many children and young people experience feelings of worry and sadness or have difficulty in concentrating on school work.
Occasionally, these difficulties can become persistent and interfere with home life, school work and an ability to make friends.
It’s increasingly understood that these sorts of difficulties can develop into mental health problems in later life. It’s also known that mental health problems like depression (which consists of symptoms like persistent sadness, feelings of worthlessness and difficulties with sleeping and concentrating) are surprisingly common in young people and really interfere with their ability to meet their potential.
A substantial number of children have neurodevelopmental problems like ADHD and autism which mean that it is very difficult for them to get on with learning and with peers in classroom settings.
Spotting the signs
We really welcome the Welsh Government’s report calling for a greater focus on mental health prevention in children and young people.
There is strong scientific evidence showing that mental health difficulties in young people are common, can have long lasting effects on physical and mental health but also that some conditions, with proper care can be treated more effectively and even prevented.
Preventive interventions can involve a number of things including giving treatments to people with early symptoms, providing information about the causes of difficulties and mental health training for people who work with young people and families.
One example of a preventive intervention that has been tested in randomised controlled trials shows that psychological therapy (cognitive behavioural therapy) for teenagers with symptoms of depression prevents the escalation of those symptoms into serious clinical depression and has beneficial effects on depression, academic and social skills that last for several years.
Better mental health awareness of symptoms, knowledge on how to seek help, and an understanding of helpful behaviours for those with mental health problems and their families has been shown to be useful.
Making mental health a priority
An important issue to bear in mind is that preventive interventions and mental health awareness programmes need to be evaluated in the same way that other medicines are.
In order for a greater investment in prevention to reap real benefits for children as they grow up, it is crucial that evidence-based treatments and preventive interventions are used.
A number of well evaluated, evidence based preventive interventions and mental health education packages exist.
It is also essential that people working with young people in schools and other community settings receive good quality training and advice about mental health and the available interventions.
It is important for clinicians and scientists to work together with teachers, parents and young people to support this initiative and to exchange knowledge.