THE BLOG

Child and Adolescent Mental Health: A Journey through Time

22/02/2016 11:45 GMT | Updated 18/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Hi. My name's Priya and I am an academic psychiatry doctor with an interest in child and adolescent mental health.

Though I graduated from medical school several years ago now, I remember it only too well... Six years of study sat in dusty old libraries and a hidden underground laboratory was both a charming yet somewhat onerous experience.

Reading the underlying theory and learning about the human body was of course a necessity, but it was the human mind that fascinated me- specifically those that belong to our younger members of society.

If child and adolescent psychiatry had an age, we might say that it is still in its infancy especially when compared to the other specialities.

From a historical perspective however children throughout the different eras have always shown emotional and behavioural problems. Up until the 19th century mental illness in children was not viewed as a serious health and well being concern, but instead an issue with the child's morality that required punishment.

It certainly does sound shocking by today's terms. Yet the study and practice of child psychiatry as a discipline only really started to emerge as recently as the 1920s. Indeed in many countries at this present time it remains unrecognised as a subspecialty and is even ignored from the curricula of a number of medical schools.

Somewhat ironically then, has the specialty's immaturity and youthfulness added to the narrative relating to the challenges faced by young people suffering with mental ill health today.

It's only too easy to sit back and comment, 'we just don't know enough' when it comes to understanding child and adolescent mental health.

Whilst there is still much we need to discover and learn in terms of specific aspects of child emotional and psychological health, broadly speaking this statement is a mistake. It is an out of date viewpoint and one that could have significant consequences.

Children and young people are who they are. Dynamic and constantly evolving, we know from research that a child's psychological and behavioural development is shaped from even before they are born.

Of course genes do play a large part and for certain conditions are particularly relevant. However many agree that children and young people are who they are also as a consequence of the experiences and exposures they have encountered in their lives up to that point in time, that is their environment.

This has far wider repercussions too including those aspects of who we are that determine our goals and ambitions, our connectedness with others, our ability to interact and make careful decisions. Far too often these factors extend beyond childhood and adolescence and persist well into adulthood, highlighting a real vulnerability. This has been a focus for much needed research over the past few years pioneered by some remarkable individuals.

As it stands young people today face an enormous amount of adversity with real potential to impact on their emotional and psychological well-being. Perhaps this is on a much greater level than several decades or centuries ago too, and is complicated by exposures that are developing at a phenomenal rate. We certainly recognise the value and benefit of technology yet over the past few years we have seen how this can also bring mental health risks by way of online bullying via social media for example.

We need to support our children and young people including their families, talk about what it means to be mentally healthy and know when to seek out help. The stigma attached to mental ill health is cumbersome, and quite frankly utterly unhelpful. We need to erase it from society's hard drive. We can do this by challenging and discussing the issues raised more routinely and involving young people more frequently in those conversations.

From a professional perspective, we also are in desperate need of more funding. We need more front line staff and innovative ways to facilitate greater access to the amazing multidisciplinary family that allows child and adolescent psychiatry to function. We need our government to invest in child and adolescent mental health seriously, and to talk meaningfully with those directly involved.

So it's clear that child and adolescent mental health has come a very long way over the last two centuries, but we need to keep going. We need to continue to allow our understanding to grow and take personal responsibility for eradicating the stigma that lurks in the shadows. We need to do this for the young people of today and the young people of tomorrow. They are our future after all.

Now, let's get tweeting, #YoungMindsMatter

Dr Priya Rajyaguru, Academic Clinical Fellow ST1 Psychiatry

Tweets @thispriyaraj