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Children of the new century: Mental health findings from the Millennium Cohort Study

This report sets out some early findings from a three-year project on children’s mental health being undertaken jointly by the Institute of Education, now part of University College London, and Centre for Mental Health, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.

The primary aim of the joint project is to analyse trajectories of mental health problems during childhood using data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a multi-purpose longitudinal study which is following a large sample of children born in the UK in 2000/01. Early work on the project entailed the extraction of substantial amounts of data on the mental health of children in the MCS from successive surveys carried out at child ages 3, 5, 7 and 11.

This was a necessary first step in the analysis of trajectories, but the work has also generated much information on overall levels of mental health in children born at the start of the 21st century which may be of wider interest and relevance. For example, it is now more than ten years since the last official British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Survey (BCAMHS) was in the field, implying that decisions on policy or service planning which rely on this source are using information which is increasingly out of date. In contrast, the most recent survey of children in the MCS was carried out mainly in 2012 and so provides data of a more contemporary nature, albeit confined to children born in a specific year. Another advantage of the MCS is that it is based on a substantially larger sample of children than the BCAMHS, allowing more scope for detailed sub-group analysis, for example by ethnicity.

The main, though not exclusive, focus of this report is on the mental health of children around the age of 11, which reflects experiences at the onset of adolescence and at an important time of transition for most children because of the move from primary to secondary education.

Following a short review of data sources and methods, we present and discuss information on four main topics:

  • The prevalence of mental health problems among 11-year-old children in the UK, including analysis of the extent to which children may be displaying two or more problems at the same time.
  • Socio-demographic differences in the prevalence of mental health problems among 11-year-olds, examining the extent of variation in prevalence according to a range of factors such as country of residence within the UK, ethnicity, family type, parental education, parental occupation and family income.
  • Trends in the prevalence of mental health problems among 10- and 11-year-old children between 1999 and 2012, based on a comparison of findings in the 1999 and 2004 BCAMHS and the MCS.
  • Finally, information on patterns of incidence and recurrence in mental health problems within the same children, drawing on data collected in successive surveys of the MCS at child ages 3, 5, 7 and 11.

The report is written with a general readership in mind and, wherever possible, quantitative information is illustrated by relatively simple diagrams rather than detailed tabular presentations. For those with a more specialist interest, detailed supporting information, including sample numbers and statistical significance tests, is provided in a series of appendix tables at the end of the report.