Child poverty, including low family incomes and poor housing, can lead to serious and prolonged mental illness in children, a new report has found.

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPag) and the New Zealand Psychological Society (NZPsS) today released their report, Child Poverty and Mental Health: A Literature Review, which reveals that poverty has a serious effect on the mental health and well-being of children in New Zealand.

"Increasing the danger for children in poverty is that these effects may go unnoticed until the damage is severe," says Professor Innes Asher, CPag health spokeswoman.

"Prevention is the key; which can be aided by policies that support better incomes and housing for families, as well as early detection of symptoms in children, and timely access to the right kind of treatment."

Advertisement

Dr Kerry Gibson, clinical psychologist and Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, says New Zealand's mental health system is overwhelmed by increasing need.

"We know that poverty experienced during the early years of a child's life is detrimental to their later mental health. We need policies to support families with young children to ensure that they grow up healthy and happy," Gibson says.

"It is time to stop putting the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff as a solution. Child poverty is a clear contributor to mental health problems. We need to address the problem at the root."

The report states that poverty rates were consistently higher for younger children, aged 0 to 11 years, compared to children aged 12 to 17; Maori and Pasifika compared to European/Pakeha; and where parents have lower levels of educational qualifications.

A total of 295,000, or more than one in four children aged 0 to 17 years, were living in relative income poverty.

An average 63 per cent of children in poverty live in beneficiary households and 37 per cent live in homes where one or more adults are in paid employment.

Sole-parent families were more likely to have children in poverty, at 53 per cent, compared to 47 per cent of two-parent families.

Children were also more than twice as likely to be in poverty than those aged 65-plus.

NZPsS president Quentin Abraham said if society wanted to improve the mental health of children, poverty must end.

"Some young people living in poverty show remarkable grit and determination and they may even succeed against the odds, but do we want to make their lives so hard and risk their mental health?"

All young people should have their basic needs taken care of.

"We need assurance that all young people and their whanau will have a home, food, clothing, access to a good education with carers who are not worrying about the basics to live, so that we can prevent mental health problems.

"We need a commitment from government to put our tamariki first and eliminate child poverty. Supporting the mental health and well-being of our children is vital to the future of our country," Abraham said.