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Improving mental health through parenting programmes: are the results valid?
  1. S S Gada1,
  2. S Kanumakala1
  1. 1Department of Paediatrics, The Royal Free Hospital, Pond Street, London NW3 2QG, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Gada; sri{at}doctors.org.uk
  1. S Stewart-Brown2,
  2. J Patterson2,
  3. J Barlow2
  1. 2Institute of Health Sciences, Oxford, UK

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We read the article by Patterson et al with interest.1 Firstly, the percentage of questionnaires returned from the survey should have been 61.8% not 70%, as reported.

Secondly, mental health problems are prevalent in people of lower socioeconomic class. Unfortunately, working class parents were seriously under-represented in the study. The results from educated and predominantly caucasian people from Oxford are not applicable to areas like ours. In the Camden and Islington boroughs of London, we work with parents of mostly lower socioeconomic class and of varied ethnicity—from Albania to Zaire—to whom these results are not relevant. We need more studies conducted in these people to know the best evidence.

Thirdly, the intervention effect is seen at 6 months (short term) follow up. We wonder whether the maturational effect seen in the control group will actually decrease the effect of parenting in the intervention group in the long term?1 Moreover the intervention effect is said to be statistically significant. But is it clinically significant as well? And there is no cost-benefit analysis given.2 Does this justify the considerable use of resources, especially in today’s cash strapped, staff depleted (fewer health visitors) NHS? Furthermore, parents in the intervention group might have believed that the parenting programme is efficacious, and consequently feel and perform better than those who were in the control group, as they were aware of group allocation.3 Also, unblinded study personnel who are measuring and recording outcomes (such as quality of life) may provide different interpretation of marginal findings, which can distort the results.3 We now know that negative, inconsistent parental behaviour in families with high levels of adversity are associated with emergence of problems in early childhood and later life.4 Hence, we believe that parenting interventions should be applied in high risk populations. That is parents of children with ECBI scores of 127 or more and not children with 100 and above as included in the study.1 It would have been helpful if authors gave ECBI and SDQ scales as a web supplement to the above article.

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Authors’ reply

Drs Srinivas, Gada, Shanker, and Kanumaka make a number of useful points about our trial. Firstly, they query our response rate. This rate can be calculated using either the number of families or the number of children as the denominator. The rate we quoted 800/1155 is the proportion of families responding. The rate of 61.8% (1105/1788) relates to the proportion of children. Given that this was a trial about parents and parenting we decided that the family based response rate was the most appropriate to report.

Secondly, they point out that this trial was carried out in Oxford and that the socioeconomic mix was somewhat biased towards middle class parents. Although all social groups were well represented in the trial, the point Dr Srinivas and colleagues make is valid. However, behaviour problems are common in all social groups,1 and because of the distribution of children in each social class, there are considerably more children with behaviour problems in middle class families than there are in families living in social deprivation.2 An important finding in this trial was that those who consented to take part were more likely than those who did not to have a child with problem behaviour. We feel that this validates our population approach. At the same time, it is true that our results may not be totally transferable to Islington. That does not stop them, however, being both valid and important.

Dr Srinivas says that more studies of programmes with parents from lower socioeconomic groups are needed. In fact, the great majority of trials of parenting programmes have been conducted with high risk groups and we know from these trials that they are valuable with families living in social deprivation.3,4 We are currently completing a systematic review of parenting programmes for minority ethnic families and have found no evidence that parenting programmes are less effective with parents from such groups than they are with those from majority ethnic groups.5

The authors suggest that the changes we have observed in our trial could be a speeding up of a normal maturational effect. Half of the child outcomes we measured showed changes compatible with this interpretation, but the other half do not. The latter show either continuing improvement in both groups or more change in the intervention than control group at six month follow up. We will be publishing the results of our 12 month follow up.

The authors also ask whether our results are clinically significant. The differences between intervention and control group scores at 6 months represent effect sizes of around 0.3 (of a standard deviation). In clinical terms such changes are regarded as small. However in public health terms a small change in a large group is often more important than a big change in a small group, so these differences are of public health significance.

Dr Srinivas and colleagues also ask about cost effectiveness. We did not undertake a formal economic analysis in this study, but the costs of the intervention were mainly in the staff time. Taking account of time spent in supervision, but not training, the costs fall somewhere between six and ten hours of group leader time per parent attending the course. Effectiveness in this context is more difficult to estimate and cannot be measured only in terms of immediate behavioural outcomes. The evidence that the quality of parent-child relationships has a long term impact on mental and physical health and on social well being is mounting. Estimating all the societal benefits of this intervention was beyond the scope of our study but could be very considerable.

Dr Srinivas and colleagues also suggest that our results may be invalid because they were not collected by researchers blind to intervention group. All our outcomes were based on self-report by parents, so blinding of study personnel is irrelevant. It is unfortunately not possible, in trials of health promoting interventions, to blind participants to the intervention. Although it is theoretically possible to make “blinded” observations of some of these outcomes, such approaches greatly increase the cost of studies and were not possible with the funding we had available.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dr Srinivas and colleagues suggest that limited NHS resources should be concentrated were they are needed most, and not on relatively well middle classes. There will be many readers who agree with them. The pros and cons of population versus high risk approaches are much debated. The point, however, is that these approaches are not mutually exclusive and authoritative sources6,7 of advice on child health now recognise the need for both. The arguments in favour of population approaches to the promotion of mental health were cogently put many years ago by Geoffrey Rose,8 to whose paper we direct interested readers.

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