Why are so many more primary school children suffering mental health problems today?

Today, July 18th 2019, the newspapers, and the media in general, are leading on children’s mental wellbeing, or rather lack of it. Again. This time the statistics are telling us that there has been an almost 50% increase over the last 3 years in mental health referrals by primary schools. Primary Schools! It would be bad enough if this was secondary schools, but surely not such little ones? And this is a huge increase. I heard teachers describe how 8 and 9 year olds were expressing worries to them about suicidal feelings and self-harm. One teacher even observed that staff were ‘crying together’ because they were so distressed at what they were hearing from these little children. What a terrible indictment on today’s society, that our young children are discussing matters that it would be better they hadn’t even heard about, let alone experienced, although perhaps under the circumstances it is at least a positive thing that they are able to share these tragic emotions with caring adults. But how has it come to this?

It was noticeable in all the discussions today that there was little about early years care, and whether that might be making a contribution to later wellbeing. There appeared to be little knowledge being shared on how the way a child is treated in the first three years of its life affects later wellbeing, and how resilience is built. There are an enormous number of research papers from all over the world in a vast range of related disciplines showing how vital to the wellbeing of babies is the presence of their mother. It is unfashionable to point this out, as so many today are anxious to reassure us that anyone will do instead, provided the care of an infant is of ‘high quality’ – and of course the father is equivalent, they add. He isn’t. He is a father, not a substitute mother: important, yes, wonderful, indeed a central source of love and support, but not the mother. In evolutionary terms, millennia before formula milk and substitute carers, the mother would have been the source of life itself and without her an infant would be likely to die (until they discovered the equivalent of a stone-age wet nurse). Somewhere in the baby’s limbic brain there remains this ancient imprint, a distant passeddown memory, that mum’s presence is needed for survival. In practical terms, that may not now be the case. However, emotionally speaking , there is so much love, comfort, reassurance, security and connection that a mother provides, for the majority of children, that to overlook this is to overlook a basic building block for future mental well-being. Constant reassuring loving contact with a mother, or whoever takes on the securely ever-present loving mother’s role, reduces stress, builds the brain, increases resilience, and thus helps children cope with future difficulties and strengthens their sense of wellbeing. Remove this rock of loving reassurance too early, too often and for too long, then our children’s stress-management systems will flounder and their mental well-being suffer. We must not be afraid to say this. Our children deserve nothing less.