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Improving the future of mental health

15 January 2015
Abigail Ryan

Abigail Ryan

Abigail Ryan discusses mental health in the third blog of our Improving Futures series. Our Improving Futures programme is funding 26 projects across the UK to transform outcomes for children living in families with multiple and complex needs.

Two years into the evaluation, one area where projects have made limited progress is in improving mental health. Projects have successfully reduced lower level mental health problems such as suspected or reported stress or anxiety, from 45% of families on entry to the programme to 37% on exit.

However the occurrence of other more serious mental health problems increased slightly from 12% to 13% of families upon entry and exit respectively. This includes both adult and child mental health, although it was more common amongst adults.

There are a number of possible explanations for this:

    1. The increase in families with mental health problems could have been caused by projects identifying the issues, leading to a diagnosis.
    2. It could be that mental health problems are often too complex to be resolved within a 5½ month period – the average duration of an intervention on this programme.
    3. Projects may be successfully helping families to manage their mental health problems, but the problems haven’t gone away.
    4. Or perhaps this kind of family support is not effective in addressing mental health issues or not adequately complemented by specialist local services.

Limited progress in mental health has been a theme across many evaluations of family support services. For example, due to their prevalence among families, the presence of physical and mental health problems will become a focus of work in the expanded government-funded Troubled Families programme. The Family Pathfinder evaluation also notes that families’ “enduring vulnerability should not be underestimated. On exit from support, worklessness and mental health issues remained common concerns.”

This raises the question: is mental health one of the most challenging areas when supporting families?

As the Improving Futures programme continues, the evaluation will explore a number of questions, such as how many families exiting the programme with mental health problems are accessing specialist support during or after their time with the project. It is worth noting that projects highlighted gaps in local service provision for mental health. They sometimes struggled to refer families to other services after a need had been identified due to lack of availability or high eligibility thresholds.

This poses a number of further questions:

  • If families are receiving specialist mental health support longer term, are they getting the kind of whole family support that Improving Futures provides?
  • Would this whole family support be beneficial and complementary to more intensive or specialist mental health support in the longer term?
  • Where is the right balance between family and individualised services?
  • Do we need to do much more to increase early intervention service provision around mental health?

Limited progress in improving mental health is an issue that Ecorys will explore further during the remainder of the evaluation, but for now, we’d love to hear your thoughts! Please share your comments below.

You can read the executive summary or the full year two report for more information about the findings so far.

Also, keep an eye on our HeadStart programme which will be testing different interventions and ways of working to help young people aged 10-14 learn to be more resilient.

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