Mental Distress in Children and General UK Laws and Mental Policy

Mental Distress in Children and General UK Laws and Mental Policy


Social work plays a significant role in mental health care. Good social work practice helps to change the lives of persons suffering from various mental health problems, and is useful in a multidisciplinary support system. Social workers ensure that eligible patient populations are able to access different social care services and resources (Allen, 2014; Golightly & Goemans, 2020). This helps to improve their health outcomes by enabling them to stay safe and lead healthy lives. When working with people living with mental health conditions, social workers employ a relationship-based approach to attain positive change (Golightly & Goemans, 2020). They protect human rights, and promote the aspect of self-determination (Tew, 2011; Gould, 2016). Thus, social workers help to improve recovery by focusing on the health of an individual as a whole rather than illness alone.

The modern mental health care practice encourages social workers to embrace a social perspective. The social perspective is concerned with factors that contribute to mental distress, the impact of the condition, and interventions that can be used to promote meaningful recovery (Tew, 2005; Tew, 2011). This approach emphasizes on the application of the social model of care to social work practice (Tew, 2011). The current essay examines what a social perspective can contribute towards a more comprehensive understanding of mental distress in undertaking mental health social work among children with experiences of abuse or trauma.

Social Work Practice in the Context of Child Mental Health

Children comprise part of vulnerable populations of most societies. This is due to the fact that they can be victims of abuse, and lack of proper care (Walker, 2003). The traumatic experiences associated with this kind of victimization affect not only the physical health of these children, but also their mental health (Walker, 2003; Glasby & Tew, 2015). Children can receive mental health services from child social workers based at health care facilities, schools, communities, and other social settings (Tew, 2011; Glazzard & Trussler, 2020). Such professionals are trained to provide reliable and supportive care to children. They help them to access important resources such as food, and shelter (Tew, 2011). The social workers also equip the children with vital mechanisms that enable them to cope well with mental health challenges (Walker, 2003). Lack of appropriate mental health services subjects the children to behavioural problems and destructive habits.

In the United Kingdom (UK), there is a growing need for mental health services targeting children who have experiences of abuse and trauma. Most child abuse cases are often hidden. However, the police still address a significant number of offences pertaining to child abuse every year. For instance, 227,530 such cases were reported in the year 2019 (Office for National Statistics, n.d). According to the National Centre for Children and Families, one out of three children experience at least one traumatic event before reaching the age of 18 (Freud, 2022.)  Exposure to both abuse and traumatic experiences is usually associated with poor mental health outcomes among children.

Just like other countries around the world, the UK has enacted important legislations pertaining to children’s mental health. For instance, the Mental Health Act 1983 is based on the idea that human rights, including those of children, influence a legal framework governing the treatment and care of persons suffering from various forms of mental ill health (Rippon, n.d.; CRAE, 2018). The Children Act 1989 states that children need to be safe and protected through effective interventions that help them to get out of danger (Rippon, n.d.). On its part, the Human Rights Act 1998 emphasizes on the fact that every person should be treated with equality, dignity, respect, and fairness (Rippon, n.d.; CRAE, 2018).  These include children living with mental distress.

Social Perspectives Approach

The treatment of mental health problems in the past was heavily reliant on medication. Although medical treatment is helpful in addressing such conditions, it has a little effect on the improvement of long-term recovery (Glasby & Tew, 2015). The 21st century has seen a renewed interest in understanding the relationship between mental health and social aspects. This interest has been spurred by the need to examine the role of social factors in enhancing vulnerability to mental distress, the social impact of the health problem, and the social strategies that help to foster sustainable recovery. The social perspective focuses on acknowledging the expertise of the service users (Tew, 2005; Allen, 2014). It involves understanding the users’ needs and experiences.

The social perspective encourages social workers to engage their clients through meaningful ways. These include working with them closely, and applying appropriate relationship-building skills such as empathy (Tew, 2005). This enables the social workers to see the mental health problems of the service users through their own eyes and those of their families or friends. Thus, the social perspective makes a significant contribution to the treatment of mental health conditions by personalizing and humanizing the associated services (Allen, 2014). By doing so, it helps to enhance the provision of holistic care. In the UK, the social perspective is part and parcel of different government policy initiatives. Examples include the National Service Framework, and the Shared Capabilities for mental health workers (Tew, 2005; Stickley & Basset, 2008). Such initiatives focus on the social inclusion agenda.

Social Factors Contributing to Mental Health Challenges

From the social perspective, there are three broad categories of social factors associated with the onset of mental health problems among children. These are: stress, life events and personal relationships, and discrimination and other social disadvantages (Tew, 2011; Tew et al., 2011; Gould, 2016). According to the stress-vulnerability model, stressful situations make some people more susceptible to mental distress than others (Tew, 2011; Tew et al., 2011). Although this susceptibility can be attributed to genetic factors, it is important to note that it can also be associated with various social experiences. For instance, experiences of trauma during early childhood can be linked to hard wiring of the brain’s neural pathways.

The attachment theory postulates that the difficulties experienced in the development of relationships with caregivers can affect the way people approach various relationships late in life (Tew et al., 2011; Gould, 2016). This means that how children adapt to loss and other traumatizing life events determines their level of vulnerability to mental health challenges. It also needs to be pointed out that social discrimination subjects individuals to mental distress. For instance, racial or ethnic and gender-based discrimination puts children at risk for low self-esteem and it makes them feel helpless (Gould, 2016). The same case applies to other social disadvantages such as poverty, unemployment, and lack of quality education.

Social Impact of Mental Distress

Mental distress has adverse social effects on children with trauma or abuse experiences. To begin with, the condition leads to loss of identity, and systematic discrimination and stigmatization (Tew, 2005; Tew et al., 2011). Mental health problems as a result of traumatic experiences can dislodge children’s sense of who exactly they are. They also lead to the social disadvantaging of the affected children. Mental distress also facilitates social exclusion (Tew et al., 2011). It leads to unemployment, low income, and other social consequences. Such conditions can result in the exclusion of the children who are affected from the mainstream society. It can make them feel as though they are outcasts.

It is as well important to note that mental distress leads to powerlessness (Tew, 2005; Tew et al., 2011). Power relations help to determine the extent to which an individual has influence or control over a given situation or activity. This means that children with experiences of abuse can feel helpless as a result of losing their power. Moreover, it needs to be pointed out that mental distress affects interpersonal relationships (Tew et al., 2011). People suffering from various mental health conditions often find it difficult to maintain close relationships with other people. Yet such relations are vital since they support recovery. Therefore, children with similar health problems as a result of humiliating experiences may find it difficult to recover as a result of poor interpersonal relationships.

Socially Oriented Process of Recovery

There are some important social factors that facilitate recovery from mental stress. These include empowerment, positive social and personal identities, social inclusion, and supportive relationships (Tew, 2005; Tew et al., 2011; Gould, 2016). Personal empowerment leads to the development of resilience. It enables one to reclaim control over his or her life (Tew, 2005; Tew, 2015). Children who are empowered are less likely to be affected by abuse, trauma, and the resultant mental health challenges than those who are powerless. The best way through which children can be empowered is through provision of personal budgets and self-directed support. As noted in the previous section, relationships influence recovery (Tew et al., 2011; Gould, 2016). There is need for mentally distressed children to have supportive relationships. This can be achieved through engagement of their family members, relatives, and friends.

Social inclusion entails having a strong sense of belonging. Persons who are socially included tend to have strong social connections to their societies (Tew et al., 2011). This makes them feel that they are part of those societies. Children who are victims of mental distress can enjoy social inclusion by being involved in meaningful social activities in their communities. It is also vital to note that positive personal and social identities are necessary for recovery. They help to improve one’s image in terms of how he or she is perceived by other people (Tew, 2005; Gould, 2016). The identities as well enable individuals to deal with issues of stigma and discrimination (Tew, 2015). Therefore, children need to develop positive identities for them to overcome their mental health challenges.

Recovery Capital

When defined from an economic point of view, capital is regarded as a resource that people utilize to thrive within a given market economy. However, theorists such as Bourdieu and Marx hold that capital is something that can be utilized to promote or improve social relations (Tew, 2013). This form of capital is necessary for the children who are confronting mental distress due to traumatizing experiences such as abuse. There are various types of capital that can be useful in this case. They include social capital, personal capital, relationship capital, identity capital, and economic capital (Tew et al., 2011; Tew, 2013).  All these forms of capital are vital for the recovery of children struggling with mental problems.

Social capital involves one’s social networks in the society (Tew, 2013). Such networks can help mentally distressed children to get important social support that can promote recovery.  Personal capital entails personal resilience (Tew et al., 2011). This is characterized by an individual’s problem-solving skills, emotional intelligence, and ways of thinking. The resilience can enable the children to deal with mental health issues at personal level. Relationship capital derives from how one relates with others (Tew, 2013). Having good relationships with other persons enables the children with mental distress to get emotional support. Identity capital centers on how people perceive themselves and how they are seen by others (Tew, 2013). A strong sense of identity can help the affected children to deal with their mental health difficulties. Economic capital is concerned with financial stability of individuals (Tew et al., 2011). Children from families that are financially stable are able to get quality health and social care services for their mental health problems.

Towards a Social Model of Recovery

According to The Professional Association for Social Work and Social Workers, child social workers have to embrace a social model of recovery for the achievement of positive health outcomes ((BASW, 2018). The model emphasizes on the active engagement of the service user, maximization of his strengths and capacities, safeguarding human rights, and building community capacity (Tew et al., 2011; Allen, 2014; BASW, 2018). In providing social services to children with mental distress, it is useful to engage the user in a meaningful way. For instance, it can be necessary to respect his or her own decisions (Tew et al., 2011). It is also good to consider the input of the user’s family (Tew et al., 2011). The social workers also need to capitalize on the capacities and strengths of the children. For instance, it is important to encourage them to take positive risks, avoid dependence, and develop a sense of self-care (Allen, 2014). All these strategies are useful in the process of recovering.

Children living with mental distress because of abuse are part of those whose rights are violated. As advocates of these children, social workers need to work on protecting their rights. They should ensure that the children are not exposed to further exploitation and harm (Tew, 2013). This can help to make them safe and improve their dignity. It is as well vital for the social workers to focus on community capacity building. This involves engaging different groups in the community in order to enhance mutual social support (Allen, 2014). For instance, there is need to create mental health awareness. This can help to reduce the issues of isolation and stigma that are commonly associated with mental health conditions.


Social workers play an important role in the care of people with various mental health conditions. When providing social care services to children who are victims of trauma or abuse, it necessary for them to apply the social perspective in order to foster quick recovery. This perspective emphasizes on using the social model to determine the cause and impact of mental health difficulties, and the strategies that can be used to enhance recovery. Therefore, there is need for the social work professionals to embrace this approach in their practice within the mental health context. This can lead to the achievement of improved health outcomes.


Allen, R. (2014). The Role of the Social Worker in Adult Mental Health Services. Retrieved from

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Glazzard, J. & Trussler, S. (2020). Supporting Mental Health in Primary and Early Years. Sage.

Golightly, M. & Goemans, R. (2020). Social Work and Mental Health (7th ed). Learning Matters.

Gould, N. (2016). Mental Health Social Work in Context (2nd ed.) Routledge.

Office for National Statistics. (n.d.) Child Abuse in England and Wales: January 2020. Retrieved from

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Tew, J., Ramon, S., Slade, M., Bird, V., Melton, J., & Le Boutillier, C. (2011). Social Factors and Recovery from Mental Health Difficulties: A Review of the Evidence. British Journal of Social Work, 1–18. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcr07

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