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Why we need to invest in schools and children’s health

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The world that our young people need to prepare for is becoming more complex, challenging and concerning than ever. It is little wonder, therefore, that an estimated one in eight 5–19-year-olds have at least one mental health disorder.1 Yet, our health services are ill prepared to address this growing tide of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, which shows no sign of abating as environmental, political and social crises worsen.

We are also only just getting to grips with the impact of early trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which can have long-lasting and damaging consequences.

While mental health and wellbeing are certainly top of the list in current issues facing this age group, there are of course many other health concerns. Not least obesity, for example. In October last year, UNICEF2 warned that poor diets are affecting children’s health worldwide, with the proportion of overweight children between 5 and 19 years of age doubling from 1 in 10 in 2000 to almost 1 in 5 in 2016. We can only guess at the impact on the population’s health in years to come.

But there are glimmers of hope, with relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education both becoming mandatory from September this year, and hopefully providing a platform for effective health promotion interventions.

A crucial part of RSE and health education is teaching children to stay safe in today’s 24/7 online world, including issues like pornography and its worrying impact on young people’s views about consent in relationships; cyberbullying; and the pressures many
young people now feel over body image.

We also need to teach them to critically evaluate information they access. Widespread use of social media by groups such as anti-vaxxers is having a substantial impact on their health already; for example, with a perceptible and concerning rise in vaccine hesitancy among parents.

While we all know that the 0–5 period is crucial in determining future health, we should not underestimate the impact of neglecting our 5–19-year-olds, a period of momentous change when healthy habits will be made or broken for life.

We need drastic changes to health services, ranging from serious funding to effective interprofessional collaboration, if we are to stand a chance at addressing the health issues facing this age group. We all have a responsibility to push for change at a local and national level. Investing in children’s health is simply investing in the future.

Caroline Voogd, Editor, The British Journal of Child Health

References

1. NHS Digital. Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017 [PAS]. 2018. https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/public... (accessed 31 January 2020)

2. UNICEF. Poor diets damaging children’s health worldwide. 2019. https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/poor-diets-d... (accessed 31 January 2020)

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