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Serious Mental Health Problems Are on the Rise in Children, But There’s Another Crisis We Must Face

Given the relationship between stress, depression and substance misuse, what the rise in serious mental health problems could mean for addiction rates.
March 16, 2022
6 mins read

According to an analysis by the BBC, there has been a 77% rise in the number of children (under-18s) needing specialist treatment for a severe mental health crisis. 409,347 adolescents were referred to the NHS in England for specialist care for issues such as suicidal thoughts and self-harm between April and October 2021.

The Link Between Mental Health and Addiction

Many individuals who are diagnosed with a mental health disorder also develop substance use disorders (SUD), and vice versa. The most common SUD is alcohol abuse or dependence, whereas the most frequent mental illness is depression. However, it has been estimated that as many as 90% of people with bipolar disorder will experience at least one episode of major depression during their lifetime. In addition to having a more than two-fold increase in risk for developing depression, persons with bipolar I disorder have an increased rate of suicide attempts compared to those without bipolar disorder.

Many British population surveys have found that about 50% of those who experience a mental illness will also experience a substance use disorder. For example, according to the World Health Organization, there were 14 million drug users worldwide in 1990; this number had risen to 25 million by 2008. About 1 in 10 adults in developed countries suffer from alcohol problems, and 5–10% of adolescents in these countries meet the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence.

In the United Kingdom, the National Institute for Mental Health reports that about 6.2 million people in Britain — roughly 11% of the adult population — have some form of mental disorder that affects their daily lives, and that 2.6 million people suffer from anxiety or depressive disorders. Of those affected, about half receive no treatment at all, while others receive inadequate care.

The prevalence of poor mental health among young people is high. A survey carried out in 2010 showed that over 20% of teenagers surveyed reported experiencing emotional distress on five or more days in the past month.

Depression, stress and other psychological factors can lead to poor diet choices, which may cause weight gain.

Paul Spanjar, CEO of the Providence Projects Rehab Clinics in the UK, said: “We often treat individuals for both mental health problems and addiction at our treatment centre, with depression and/or anxiety being the most common. I am concerned about the huge spike in serious mental health problems coupled with the rising cost of living and a backlog of NHS treatment, given that nearly a quarter of those with serious mental illness also struggle with substance abuse.”

What Is the Government Doing?

The British Government just announced a decade-long plan meant to reduce both drug use and crime. According to their data, this is the most that drug treatment funding has ever increased — £780 million to rebuild the drug treatment system.

This includes building new services across the country, increasing capacity to treat addicts and investing in research into new treatments. The strategy will hopefully also focus on reducing demand for illegal substances, through prevention programs for vulnerable groups like young people. It also seeks to reduce demand for illicit drugs, by focusing on disrupting drug supply chains and tackling organized criminal networks.

The exact effect this new scheme will have on those under 18 is still unclear. In conclusion, children who are fighting a mental health disorder are also vulnerable to addictive behaviors and substance misuse. Therefore, it is important for parents to educate themselves about these issues and make sure their children are getting adequate care.

How To Help Your Child?

If you are a parent who has observed addictive tendencies in your child, there are several steps you can take to help them:

  • Avoid allowing your child to access any substances including alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy/MDMA, prescription drugs or recreational drugs.
  • Be aware of your own personal history of addictions and seek support if needed.
  • Talk to your child’s doctor and ask how they might be able to help.
  • If your child does have an addiction, learn what they need to do to recover and stay clean.
  • Encourage your child to get professional help.
  • Find ways to understand why your child would want to use illegal drugs or drink excessively.
  • Take care not to blame yourself or let guilt stop you from helping your child.
  • Keep your child safe. Ensure they have appropriate clothing and a place to sleep at night.
  • Ask friends and family members to encourage your child to talk to someone about their worries and concerns.

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