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Treating a child’s mental and physical health from day one will relieve burden on patients and families

Children and young people with long term physical health conditions are more likely to struggle with their mental health, but less likely to seek help.

Laura Panagi
Laura Panagi

A study of long term physical and mental health conditions in childhood, carried out by Laura Panagi from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry, aims to better understand the mental health of children and young people with longstanding physical health conditions.

Integrating mental and physical healthcare from the start of the patient journey will not only improve the lives of children and their families, but also present significant cost savings for the NHS. Every year up to 13 billion pounds are spent on mental health disorders.

It’s likely that the findings will be used to inform the development of healthcare for the new Cambridge Children’s Hospital. The hospital’s groundbreaking approach will see no differentiation between mental and physical health, instead taking a whole child approach. Currently in the UK, one in four children and young people suffer from chronic physical health conditions, such as asthma, epilepsy, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

What the study has also shown is that:

  • Mental health issues, such a depressive and anxiety disorders, PTSD and disruptive disorders, are more common amongst these patients that any other school age child.
  • The overall risk of mental health problems for children and young people with long terms conditions is four times higher than their healthy peers.
  • Managing long terms conditions, including self-care, lifestyle changes and restrictions, can lead to a higher risk of mental health problems.
  • Fewer children and young people with chronic conditions accessed mental health services even though the rates of problems have increased in recent years.

Integrating mental health services into paediatrics is fundamental and benefits extend to patients, caregivers, providers, and the health care system.

Laura Panagi from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry

“I am very motivated by the fact that I use high-quality, large-scale data to work on a project that can have a positive impact on how young patients are treated.”

The research uses large, national datasets and follows the same sample of children over time so that it is possible to identify predictors of mental health problems and access to services as they emerge. The work started in November 2020 and is supported by a grant from the Beryl Alexander Charity.

Cambridge Children’s Hospital is due to open in 2025.