CHILDREN as young as two are to have their psychological well-being assessed in order to monitor the mental health of youngsters in Scotland.
In the first study of its kind, NHS Scotland will quiz children on subjects including happiness and spirituality, in order to build a detailed profile of the mental health of Scots aged under 17.
The survey, which collects information on the mental well-being of children aged from 24-30 months to school-age, is due to be published towards the end of 2013.
According to official statistics from mental health charities, around one in 10 children between five and 15 in Scotland experiences a mental health problem.
Dr Jane Parkinson, public health advisor with NHS Scotland, said the assessment was relevant to children of all ages.
She said: “It’s not just those that obviously have a recognised diagnosed problem, but recognising that everyone in the population has a mental health need.
“We need to talk the whole population approach and monitor to find out what is happening in the population.
“The report will be updated with new data every four years and with that we can inform the Scottish Government and other key partners about how things are now.
“We can highlight trends and inequalities and pinpoint to where focus for action is needed.
109 suitable indicators of mental health have been identified which will provide a snapshot of how children are faring psychologically as they grow up in Scotland.
They include assessment of the ability to play and to talk to parents, liking school, bullying, and the use of drugs and alcohol, as well as external factors such as neighbourhood safety and the strength of social networks, body image and participation in clubs or organisations.
Parkinson acknowledged there were difficulties around some other key areas, such as assessing spirituality. “There is a lot of recognition that it [spirituality] is important, but actually getting what it means to everybody in the population and then identifying one or two questions that can easily ask that is a challenge,” she said.
“There are a few indicators where we currently don’t have the data, but it is recognised they are very important things for children’s mental health and wellbeing. We need to do more work to either identify how we would assess them or to get the questions in national surveys to actually get the data.
“That is future work to take forward to improve the picture we are getting over time.”
Carolyn Roberts, head of policy and campaigns at the Scottish Association for Mental Health, welcomed the development of the indicators.
“The more we know about children and young people’s mental health, the better equipped we are to help them,” she said. “The new indicators provide both a source of information and a reason to talk about mental health, and that can only be a good thing.”
Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said it was important not to assume that children would just “bounce back” from difficulties. “That has been the received wisdom around children, that they are very resilient,” she said. “In fact, the evidence is growing that that is not the case and children actually are deeply impacted by things when they are very young.
“If we have some way of ascertaining that and then supporting children to deal with it, then I think that can only be for the good.”
Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, which examined the impact of the modern world on children, said it was vital to care about the mental health of children but also cautioned it was impossible to try to measure some factors.
“Evidence-based material is useful up to a point,” she said. “But there are immeasurables like love, play and care. These things are to do with the individual, the context in which they are growing and these are the ones we have problems measuring in society in general.
“It is terribly difficult to measure that sort of human interaction which is at the bottom of most of our mental health. You cannot measure love.”