Promoting mental health in the early years

December 10, 2021

Waddell C, Catherine N, Barican J, Yung D, Cullen A, Gray-Grant D, & Schwartz C. (2021). Promoting Mental Health in the Early Years: Effective Psychosocial Interventions. Vancouver, BC: Children’s Health Policy Centre, Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University.

Executive summary:

Mental health — or social and emotional wellbeing — begins in the early years and underpins the overall health of both individuals and populations. At the same time, many young children experience avoidable adversities, such as family socioeconomic disadvantage, which can contribute to the development of mental disorders. So, early childhood is the optimal time to intervene — particularly to prevent the onset of mental disorders, and to treat these disorders. To inform policymaking, we therefore sought high-quality research evidence on effective psychosocial interventions for preventing and treating three of the most common mental health conditions that start in early childhood: anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and behaviour disorders.

On balance, we found strong evidence supporting cognitive-behavioural therapy for anxiety — with two prevention and four treatment programs showing success. We also found strong evidence supporting parent training for behaviour problems — with 11 prevention and two treatment programs showing success. As well, we found evidence supporting parent training for ADHD — with four prevention and three treatment programs showing some success. As a result, there is ample evidence to act on — starting with early childhood anxiety and behaviour programs, where the research evidence is strongest. Prevention, in particular, is also cost-effective. For example, preventing just one case of a severe childhood behaviour disorder can save millions of dollars in averted lifetime costs. Investments in effective prevention programs in early childhood can therefore benefit not only children and families, but also society.

Given the potential to improve developmental trajectories starting early in life, there is a collective ethical imperative to ensure that the prevention of mental disorders is a top population health and public policy priority. Offering effective prevention programs to all in need will help to create conditions that enable more children to flourish and meet their potential — in turn contributing to addressing health and social disparities. Ensuring that all young children with mental disorders are identified early and receive timely and effective treatment programs is also crucial — in keeping with international commitments to meet children’s needs and honour their rights. In turn, collective flourishing will be enhanced by wise public investments in mental health in early childhood.

Full text of this report is available here.