Child and adolescent mental health


Content last reviewed: 7 April 2016

Mental health problems in children and adolescents are an important public health problem. Poor mental health and wellbeing are associated with a range of adverse outcomes including high levels of health risk behaviours such as smoking, drug and alcohol misuse.

Many mental health problems start early in life. Of those with a lifetime mental health illness; 50% will experience their first symptoms before the age of 14 years and around 75% by their mid-twenties. A quarter of the population in Central Bedfordshire is under 20 (1). A good start in life and positive parenting is therefore crucial to good mental health throughout adult life.

Mental disorders are largely characterized by:

  • Conduct disorders - are characterized by ‘a pattern of repetitive, persistent, and excessive antisocial, aggressive or defiant behaviour lasting six months or more (2). The behaviour is out of keeping with the child’s developmental age, behaviour of peer group and cultural context.
  • Emotional disorders- include anxiety and depressive disorders. Anxiety disorders include generalised anxiety, specific phobias and obsessive compulsive disorders. Emotional disorders are associated with low income households, single parents, unemployed parents and parental mental health problems.
  • Hyperkinetic disorders -the most common and best described hyperkinetic disorder is Attention Deficit Hyperkinetic Disorder (ADHD). This is a complex condition associated with genetic and environmental factors. ADHD is of particular concern due to its association with criminal behaviour. It is estimated that two thirds of children in young offender institutions have ADHD and half of adults in prison had childhood ADHD. Common problems associated with ADHD in children can include: non-compliant behaviour, sleep disturbance, aggression, temper tantrums, literacy and other learning problems, motor tics, mood swings, unpopularity with peers, clumsiness, and immature language. However, problems associated with ADHD appear in different ways at different ages.
  • Eating disorders - are syndromes characterised by persistent and severe disturbances in attitudes to eating and behaviour. This may result in under-eating which is typical of anorexia nervosa, or binging and purging which is typical of bulimia nervosa or binge/compulsive over-eating. Eating disorders can lead to serious health problems which include infertility, osteoporosis, dental problems, self harm and substance misuse (3)  Eating disorders can be life threatening if not treated.
  • Psychotic disorders - Schizophrenia is a term used to describe a major psychiatric disorder (or cluster of disorders) that alters a person’s perception, thoughts, affect and behaviour. Importantly schizophrenia has a worse prognosis with onset in childhood or adolescence than with onset in adult life (4)
  •  Self Harming- can be defined as ‘self-poisoning or self-injury, irrespective of the apparent purpose of the act’. Most people who self harm have an associated mental illness; however it may not be associated with mental health problems.
  • Developmental disorders (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) –covered under autism (children and young people)


(1) Chimat health profiles 2011- Central Bedfordshire

(2) Smith, J. Assessment of Tier 2 Level Mental Health Needs of Children and Adolescents in Central Bedfordshire. 2010

(3) Health Needs Assessment- 6.2: Eating Disorders. NHS Bedfordshire, April 2011

(4) National guideline for Clinical Excellence; Guideline scope:  Psychosis and schizophrenia: recognition and management of psychosis and schizophrenia in children and young people




Last updated Wednesday, 1st November 2017