A recent study shows that one in five children in the UK have a higher risk of developing adolescent mental health disorders or physical illness because of persistent poverty. This alarming scenario comes from a new paper published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.
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In 2016-17, about 4.1 million children, or 30%, in the UK were poor, up from 27% five years back. The number is projected to rise still more over the next five years, to 37%. Over 62% of children had never been poor. Early and late childhood poverty was noted in about 13% and 5% of children respectively.
The present study aimed at discovering whether exposure to poverty at different times affects child health in different ways, based on three health indicators. The findings were adjusted for maternal education and ethnic origin, but still showed that overall, poverty was associated with worse physical and mental health in adolescence. Specifically, persistent poverty was correlated with a three-fold risk of mental illness, 1.5 times higher obesity risk, and a two-fold rise in long-standing illness, compared with the never-poor.
Poverty in early childhood was more closely linked to social and emotional problems manifesting as disturbed behavior, as well as with long-standing illness at the age of 14 years. However, poverty in late childhood was associated with a higher risk of obesity in the later adolescent years. Poverty was defined here as a household income below 60% of the average.
The data was derived from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, covering almost 11,000 children born between 2000 and 2002, followed to measure poverty at different points, namely, 9 months, and then at 3, 5, 7, 11 and 14 years of age.
A Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) was used to assess mental health, based on the mother’s ratings for areas like hyperactivity, peer issues and poor conduct. Physical health was evaluated using the body mass index (BMI) to detect obesity. Finally, chronic illness was assessed at 14 years on the basis of the mother’s report, excluding mental illness.
Previous studies show that living in persistent poverty is correlated with poor mental health and impaired cognitive, social and behavioral development. It also reduces educational, employment and income-generating outcomes well into adult life. They also indicate that poverty is likely to be the cause of these poor outcomes rather than just an association.
There are many signs that social and living conditions for UK children have become worse recently, increasing the number of poor children while limiting the resources available for social and health care. One UN expert describes this scenario as “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.”
Children in the UK have a 10% chance of developing a mental illness, with poverty being significantly to blame for this. Poor mental health in childhood leaves its traces well into adult life, handicapping the individual in multiple physical and sociobehavioral areas. Adolescence is a high-risk period for mental health disorders. Indeed, almost 75% of these illnesses begin before the age of 25 years, most in the teen years. The link with poverty should make this a high-priority area for social policymakers.
An earlier study emphasized the importance of focusing on child poverty, rather than on limited health targets in children, to avoid resource drain without arresting the poverty levels, which would boost the need for health services. Moreover, focusing on narrow areas of child health are of little benefit compared to the universal lifetime health advantages resulting from a higher household income.
Public policy changes require accurate evaluation of poverty levels, time trends and the impact on child health. Most strategies to reduce child poverty focus on prioritizing this area, protective measures on child benefits, and reporting income data relating to child poverty.
Health professionals must lobby for children to receive their rights in the area of health. Screening for social health among poor families helps improve child health and family social position. In light of the UK’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, which is already directed towards removing poverty and inequality, the report says, “Health professionals are therefore well-placed to argue that policies and services in the UK should fulfil our moral and legal responsibility to ensure that every child is able to achieve their full potential.”
Lai ETC, Wickham S, Law C, et al Poverty dynamics and health in late childhood in the UK: evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study Archives of Disease in Childhood Published Online First: 11 June 2019. doi: 10.1136/archdischild-2018-316702, https://adc.bmj.com/content/early/2019/05/15/archdischild-2018-316702