It is amazing how often the obvious comes as a revelation to the academics that inhabit the world of research and public health. A new study out of Massachusetts’s general hospital shows that children who do not get enough sleep have more cognitive (thinking) and behavioral problems.

Really! Who would have thought that tiredness (in adults or children) could influence the ability to reason, think and control ones behavior and emotions. We all know that when we are tired we are grumpier and can get emotional. This is even more pronounced in the young.

“Children who aren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep have more difficulties with attention, with emotional control, with reasoning, with problem-solving, and also have behavioral problems,” lead author Dr. Elsie Taveras told Reuters Health.

“What we found was that insufficient sleep in children was associated with poorer executive function and behavior,” said Taveras, who is chief of general pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children in Boston.

Another study from the University of Oxford (published in the BMJ) found that “Children whose fathers were emotionally involved and secure in their place in the household at infancy were less likely to develop behavioral problems as adolescents”. The authors noted “Positive parenting by fathers may contribute to good outcomes in children in a number of ways: How fathers see themselves as parents, how they value their role as a parent, and how they adjust to this new role — all appear to be associated with positive [behavioral] outcomes in children.”

The same will apply to mothers. In other words if children get good parenting and have an emotionally stable environment, they will have less emotional and behavioral problems. Who knew?

The answer is everyone, except those in public health, academia and government child protection agencies.

Lets be blunt here. It is politically incorrect to say that parenting makes a difference. Saying this is portrayed as being discriminatory to those who are struggling as parents. However refusal to acknowledge the problem will not make it go away.

In fact – quite the opposite. The first step to helping those in need is being able to identify what is required and who requires it.

There is much hand wringing about drug use and mental health problems in teenagers. Much of the mental health problems” are in fact a function of emotional instability and stress rather than signs of illness per se. In turn basic things like sleep, home environment as well as diet and exercise all contribute.

An Australian study showed improved mood in those who followed a Mediterranean type diet instead of a high sugar low fat type diet. We know that a diet high in refined carbs is bad for our physical health but it also affects our mood. We also know that those who do regular exercise are 40% less likely to suffer depression. We know that those who develop resilience do better when life has its normal ups and downs.

Yet we still hear about a crisis in mental health. We hear how universities can’t provide enough counselors. (Keep in mind that “being triggered” by an opinion you do not agree with does not mean you need counseling). There are calls, as usual, for more funding.

Lets get to the basics. How we feel, at any age, is influenced by what goes on around us and our response to it. Getting enough sleep, eating a sensible diet, doing some exercise and managing stress makes a massive difference. For children throw in stable capable parenting.

None of this is difficult or expensive. Indeed the savings made by focusing on what really makes a difference would save billions and free up resources for those with genuine psychiatric illness.

But more importantly by focusing on what actually matters we can help people have a better quality of life.