Ending childhood adversity

Written by: Katy Hetherington, Organisational Lead – Childhood Adversity, Public Health Scotland

Published: 03/09/2020

“Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims” – United Nations

The impact of COVID-19 continues to affect our lives today. We are learning to live with the virus and reduce the risks of transmission by following public health guidance. As well as the direct risks to our health from the virus, it is affecting our health and wellbeing more indirectly; the public health measures designed to reduce the spread of the virus are affecting how we live, our public services and the wider economy.

We are still learning about this new disease and the effects it is having on populations across the world. However, we know that the impacts will not affect everyone in the same way. Those at higher risk of ill health from the virus, on low income, or in precarious employment will be disproportionately affected. Children are not immune to such effects. While children may not be a population most directly at risk from the virus itself, the measures which were put in place to minimise the virus’s spread – particularly when lockdown began in March – have greatly affected children. Schools were closed, exams were cancelled and opportunities to socialise with friends and family outside the home was limited. Children’s own experiences of poverty, abuse, and neglect – and those of their parents/carers in Scotland before lockdown – did not disappear during the pandemic. In many instances, family lives would have been enhanced by spending more time together, and the additional stress of money worries mitigated where jobs and incomes were protected. But not all children will have been affected to the same extent.

A recent briefing from the NSPCC has reported a threefold increase in counselling through childline since lockdown on 23rd March. There was less opportunity for children to disclose abuse to a trusted adult outside the home, such as a teacher. We know how important such relationships are to children and young people and how lockdown will have isolated many children, removing opportunities for them to feel safe.

Abuse is often hidden from view. Studies on Adverse Childhood Experiences and work in Scotland to debate the significance of childhood adversity has sought to make visible what has often been invisible in society. Studies such as those undertaken by Public Health Wales have highlighted the prevalence of abuse, neglect and other types of household adversity in adults recollecting their experiences as children. They have shown an association with a range of physical and mental health conditions in later life.

Adversity in childhood, including growing up in poverty, has long been associated with poorer educational attainment, employment prospects, mental health and wellbeing and risks of experiencing violence.

These are all factors which impact on health and inequalities in society. The evidence base tells us that we need to provide safe and nurturing environments for children to live and grow up in. This means providing families and communities with the resources to do so. Prevention is better than cure.

We, in Public Health Scotland, want to see childhood adversity as a public health issue with all of the other factors that affect a child’s chances in life. This needs knowledge and action across society. We must recognise the causes in order to prevent it happening. No one organisation can address it alone, but together we can. When adverse experiences have happened, a collaborative and public health approach to ending adversity in childhood has supported people in an appropriate way. An approach like this necessarily challenges the status quo. It means ensuring the policy choices that as a society we make and the way we organise our services might need to be different. As well as an abuse of children’s rights, it can have long lasting health and social impacts which we should neither be complacent about nor accept. Now, as we look to build back better, is exactly the right time to start to challenge the status quo, and to address adversity in childhood.

‘The true nature of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children. When children are hurt, we, as a society, are diminished. When we work together to end violence in their lives, we rise to the best in ourselves.’ – World Health Organisation

I hope that you will join Public Health Scotland in our efforts to attend well to our children and rise to the best in ourselves. For more information, please see our recently published report ‘Ending childhood adversity – A public health approach’ (this link will take you away from our website)

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