As a soon to be dad, I'm filled with all the anxieties that most parents face two months before their baby arrives, but with one added caveat - will I be 'good enough'? Most people probably think along these lines but in my case it comes with the added pressure of knowing many of the pitfalls, trials and tribulations related to children's mental health. The one thing that reassures me is knowing that I have learnt more about child well-being from my parents, and those around me, than years of training.
I have been fortunate in that they, along with my teachers, provided me with time, attention, love, and, ultimately, the best environment to help me thrive. Not all children are so lucky and that is the biggest shame in our developed society. It is the sole reason I became a Child Psychiatrist. Throughout my career it dawned on me that so many of the mental and physical illnesses I had to treat, seemed to be wedded to my patients' early experiences.
In my humble opinion, caring for a child is the most important and hardest job there is. So much of our modern lifestyles hinder this process, and that's if we understand how important time and attention are in the first place. Unfortunately for a lot of children, the adults in their lives are not able to provide these basic necessities. I say that without judgement or prejudice. Time has become a luxury in our lives and if you, yourself, haven't experienced this kind of love; it is very difficult to become so selfless to provide it for others.
Added to this is the large number of children who have significant neurodevelopmental disorders that aren't picked up. There really are not enough resources or education out there for parents, teachers, GPs or Paediatricians to realise how much of a child's behaviour is down to their brain. Conditions such as ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Condition, Dyslexias, Dyspraxias etc. are incredibly common. The majority of my clinical time is spent unpicking the consequences of letting a child struggle with these without the right support - whether that consequence would be depression, anxiety disorders or delinquency.
Even when these are picked up, increased government cuts, the introduction of unregulated free schools and academies have seemingly diminished the resources for them. In my short career, I am faced with teachers (whom I don't blame - my wife is a teacher!) telling me they have to focus their resources on only those that cause the most disruption. They and I know this is not good enough but what else can a teacher do when they have targets to meet with ridiculously large class sizes. There needs to be more support so that they can fulfill their wish of tailoring their input to each child.
So what's the solution? For me, it would be a whole societal shift in attitudes (which will hopefully one day does not seem so fanciful). In my generation, we have taken great strides in diminishing the effects of belonging to a minority or formally prejudiced group and one day the stigma of mental health may also fall. That is what inspired me to write this piece for Children's Mental Health Week and I think media initiatives such as The Huffington Post's collaboration with the HRH Duchess of Cambridge do a lot to help. Children feel incredibly alone with their difficulties and the sheer impact of sharing commonality often helps.
We need to readdress the priorities for our society, rather than simply focusing on those afflicted. It's been proven time and time again that early action (the earlier the better) does so much in helping solve problems later in life. Allowing those that support children, the resources to not only support some but also educate all in the importance of issues related to children's mental health; educating parents and teachers in child development; providing better access to assessments by clinicians, and increasing support for charity organisations who do profound work will all contribute. I've always thought it's strange that of all the things I was taught at school, how to be a parent wasn't one of them.
In our current climate of strikes, cuts and austerity, extra government funding is often just used to plug debt but I am warmed by the increased spotlight shone on such an important subject. I leave you with one hopeful thought - people often sympathise with me when I tell them my occupation, saying "it must be such a terrible and difficult job" but there really isn't a better feeling than helping. In my experience children are full of infectious joy and wonder; despite whatever difficulties and troubles they face, and it is our duty as a society to put them first, always.