The study is one of the first to unpick the combined effect of both paternal and maternal caregiver mental health over multiple years of childhood, including early adolescence.

The study team, which included researchers from ARC South London’s children and young people’s health theme based at King’s College London and the Universities of Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester, used longitudinal data on 10,500 children from the nationally representative UK millennium cohort study. Trajectories of poverty, maternal mental health, and secondary caregiver mental health were constructed from child age of 9 months through to 14 years. The researchers assessed the associations of these trajectories with mental health outcomes at the age of 17 years.

Boy with head on table

Young people’s health and wellbeing could be substantially improved by reducing poverty and improving parental mental health. Our studies looked at how common and important risks interact and cause harm. The next step will be to provide services that prevent and respond to the complex problems facing children and young people.

Ingrid Wolfe, professor of paediatrics and child population health, King's College London

In the UK, there are concerns about the deterioration in adult mental health and child poverty is also rising. More than half of children growing up in the UK are persistently exposed to either one or both of poor caregiver mental health and family poverty. Our study finds that the combination of these exposures is strongly associated with adverse health outcomes in the next generation.

Corresponding author Dr Nicholas Kofi Adjei, postdoctoral research associate, University of Liverpool

Parental mental health is a policy priority but the intersection with poverty and their impact on children is not always appreciated by policy makers. In addition there has been rightful emphasis on parental mental health with recent investment into community perinatal mental health services but investment is also needed beyond the first year of a child's life

Louise Howard

Louise Howard OBE, professor Emerita in Women’s Mental Health King’s College London,

The researchers identified five distinct trajectories. Compared with children with low poverty and good parental mental health, those who experienced poverty and poor primary or secondary caregiver mental health (53%) had worse outcomes. Children exposed to both persistent poverty and poor caregiver mental health were at markedly increased risk of socioemotional behavioural problems, mental health problems and cognitive disability. They estimate that 40% of socioemotional behavioural problems at the age of 17 were attributable to persistent parental caregivers' mental health problems and poverty. Tackling these issues has the potential to lead to lifetime improvements in earnings across these adolescents of equivalent to around £6.5bn.

The  Professor David Taylor Robinson, University of Liverpool said: “Reducing child poverty and parental mental health problems could result in a substantial reduction in poor health across the life course of the UK population, if the right policies and interventions are put in place. These findings are an important step in identifying priority areas for prevention efforts in the UK.”

This work was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Policy Research Programme (ORACLE: OveRcoming Adverse ChiLdhood Experiences) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration South London (NIHR ARC South London) at King's College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

Read the full study