How poverty and family adversity impact children’s mental health

How poverty and family adversity impact children’s mental health
© iStock/fizkes

A new study by the University of Liverpool has found that persistent poverty and/or persistent poor parental mental health affects children’s mental health, with statistics showing that over four in ten are impacted.

Researchers revealed that the combination of both affects one in ten children and is strongly associated with adverse child outcomes, particularly poor children’s mental health. The findings are published in the Lancet Regional Health Europe.

Corresponding author Dr Nicholas Kofi Adjei said: “This study is the first to assess the clustering of trajectories of child poverty and multiple indicators of family adversities – including parental mental ill health, domestic violence and abuse, alcohol misuse and their impacts on subsequent child behaviour and health outcomes in adolescence – in a representative UK sample.”

The impact on children’s mental health

The researchers from the University of Liverpool, Newcastle University, King’s College London and Stockholm University used longitudinal data from the UK Millennium Cohort study on 11,564 children up to age 14 years. Family adversities included parent-reported domestic violence and abuse, poor mental health, and frequent alcohol use.  The study found the following statistics when looking at the effect on children’s mental health.

  • Low poverty and family adversity – 43.2% of those included in the analysis
  • Persistent parental alcohol use – 7.7%
  • Persistent domestic violence and abuse – 3.4%
  • Persistent poor parental mental health – 11.1%
  • Persistent poverty – 22.6%
  • Persistent poverty and poor parental mental health – 11.1%

Furthermore, when compared to children exposed to low poverty and adversity, children in the persistent adversity trajectory groups experienced worse outcomes. Those exposed to persistent poor parental mental health and poverty were particularly at increased risk of socioemotional behavioural problems, cognitive disability, drug experimentation and obesity.

Dr Adjei said: “Our longitudinal analysis provides strong evidence that adverse conditions have important effects on children’s lives, but it is even more detrimental when multiple risk factors co-occur. The findings add to the current body of evidence by showing that poor parental mental health and poverty co-occur or cluster, and their persistence across the developmental stages is associated with adverse child outcomes, particularly poor children’s mental health. The study demonstrates that interventions to address specific childhood adversities may not be meaningful if childhood socioeconomic conditions are not considered.”

Recommendations following the analysis

The researchers have outlined the following recommendations following the analysis to reduce the impact on children’s mental health when faced with poverty and adversity.

Professor David Taylor-Robinson, the senior author of the study, commented: “The cluster of poverty and poor parental mental health is common and particularly harmful to children’s health. In the UK, immediate policy considerations include increasing child benefits and the child support element in universal credit uplift, reversing changes to the welfare system that have led to rising child poverty, re-investing in support services and children’s preventive services such as children’s centres, and improving access to mental health services for families.”

The study was funded by the National Institute of Health Research (NIRH) as part of the Overcoming Adverse Childhood Experiences (ORACLE). The project’s main aim is to understand the lived experiences of children, young people, and family members, and wider structural determinants, of risks and assets around parental mental health problems, substance misuse, and intimate partner abuse. ORACLE is led by Professor Ingrid Wolfe (King’s College London), Professor Eileen Kaner (Newcastle University) and Professor David Taylor-Robinson (University of Liverpool).

This study was funded by The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Policy Research Programme, NIHR Applied Research Collaboration South London (ARC South London) at King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and the Medical Research Council (MRC).


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