There has been a lot of coverage in the media about mental health in recent years which we welcome as the topic finally comes off the ‘taboo’ list. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem as people have struggled with lockdowns, redundancies, and loneliness. However, there has also been increasing concern across many factions about the deterioration in the mental health of our children.
In the last year, we may have developed treatment strategies, coping mechanisms, and vaccines to tackle the virus, but we are also still years away from understanding the full impact that restrictions, school closures, and limited social interactions will have on our children. Therefore, It is more important than ever that we acknowledge the problem and look for long-term and sustainable solutions. We cannot continue to put a ‘band-aid’ over the problem and look the other way and this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week, taking place in the week of the 7th – 13th February 2022, is a great place to start.
A recent 2021 report on the “Mental Health of Children and Young People in England” reported that since 2017, rates of ‘probable mental disorders’ have increased in children aged 6 to 16 years from 1 in 9 (11.6%) in 2017, to 1 in 6 (17.4%) in 2021.
In 17- to 19-year-olds, the rate increased from 1 in 10 (10.1%) to 1 in 6 (17.4%). If you think about an average mainstream school class of 30 students, this means that there at least 5 students who are facing mental health challenges. According to the research, nearly 40% of children aged between 6 and 16 reported a deterioration in their mental health over the time period, and in those aged 17 to 23 years old, this figure rose to over half (52.5%) of those aged 17 to 23 years. The report also highlighted an increase in sleeping disorders as well as eating disorders. Even nursery-aged children can have mental health problems, perhaps due to abuse, family situations or trauma,
Clearly, the fictional, romantic notion of a stress-free, carefree childhood is not the reality that many of our children are now living. As a teacher in a secondary school, I can vouch for this increase and I see it every day in my students who are struggling with various problems, stress and anxiety that I did not face as a child growing up in the 1970s.
Children with mental health issues can find it difficult to make friends, cope in everyday settings such as school, and many have very low self-esteem and can’t find anything good in their lives. This can cause ongoing pressures on other members of the family. And let’s not forget that many children do not have diagnosed conditions but have an acute lack of confidence, especially when they are comparing themselves to the ‘ideal images and lifestyles’ they see on social media.
Although it is not easy to pinpoint the exact reasons for the increase in prevalence, researchers have identified some possible contributing factors. These include:
- Increased pressure at school
- Effects of social media
- Increased levels of child poverty
- Cuts to early intervention services and family support services
- Cuts to youth-related services
And let’s remember that children can face mental health issues due to:
- post-traumatic stress (PTS)
- adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as marital divorce, parental substance or alcohol abuse
- abuse and neglect
- medical problems such as bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression
Whatever the reasons, we all agree that something needs to be done to address the problem and no one should face these problems alone and early intervention can help. The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child published a report called “Early Childhood Mental Health” saying:
“Most potential mental health problems will not become mental health problems if we respond to them early.”
Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week
The first Children’s Mental Health Week was started in 2015 by Place2Be, a mental health charity that aims to raise awareness of the problem of mental health in younger people. As always, the organisers would like to encourage as many people as possible to get involved and spread the word, so they are appealing to individuals, schools, nurseries, youth groups, and organisations, asking them to help by promoting good mental health in their spheres of influence. And of course, people can also raise money for the charity and support those who need it the most.
Place2Be is a “children’s mental health charity that provides counselling and mental health support and training in UK schools. They use methods backed by research that are well-tried and tested and (at last count) have worked with 639 schools, helping as many as 364,080 children and young people. As part of their emit, they also train people to deal with children with mental health issues and offer support to those who are suffering either as individuals or families.
This theme for this year’s week is “Growing Together”, and the aim is to encourage children (and adults) to consider how they have grown, and how they can help others to grow.
According to the CMHW website, “Growing Together is about growing emotionally and finding ways to help each other grow. Challenges and setbacks can help us to grow and adapt and trying new things can help us to move beyond our comfort zone into a new realm of possibility and potential. However, emotional growth is often a gradual process that happens over time, and sometimes we might feel a bit stuck.”
That’s why talking about the issues, bringing things out into the open and tackling them head-on is much better than pretending they don’t exist or telling everyone to ‘pull themselves together’ is not going to work. If we want different results, we need to do different things and treat these illnesses as seriously as we would a broken bone. Because the prognosis on some mental health problems is not good and the suicide of a young person is a tragedy to be avoided at all costs.
Signs and symptoms
According to the NSPCC website, some of the symptoms to look out for in young children include:
Signs of depression in children and teenagers can include:
- persistent low-mood or lack of motivation
- not enjoying things they used to like doing
- becoming withdrawn and spending less time with friends and family
- experiencing low self-esteem or feeling like they are ‘worthless’
- feeling tearful or upset regularly
- changes in eating or sleeping habits
Signs of anxiety in children and teenagers can include:
- becoming socially withdrawn and avoiding spending time with friends or family
- feeling nervous or ‘on edge’ a lot of the time
- suffering panic attacks
- feeling tearful, upset or angry
- trouble sleeping and changes in eating habits
Supporting young people with their mental health
The first thing to do is take things seriously and give the young person a platform where they can talk openly, without judgment, and without fear. They need to feel that someone is listening to them and will be supportive of the issues they face. Remember too that some of the problems that young people have may not seem important to older adults, but to a teenager, it may be the worse thing in the world. Everything is relative and we adults should not forget how we felt going through puberty. Being present and encouraging children to talk about their feelings are also important, as is trying to understand what causes the children to feel the way they do. Prevention is always better than cure, so encouraging conversations about feelings, stress and other problems can help open a door and prevent mental health becoming worse.
Even if adults or parents don’t feel comfortable, or are not able to discuss these things with their children, there are many organisations and help lines which can offer support and help and I have listed some of these at the end of this article.
How to support Children’s Mental Health Week
If you are concerned with this issue, there are many ways you can show your support for Children’s Mental Health Week and we’ve listed a few ideas below, but there are more on the website as well as resources for schools and youth groups to start the conversations.
1. Raise awareness – use your social media channels to add banners and images to tell people you are supporting the week. You can download some from the CMHAW website and use the hashtag #ChildrensMentalHealthWeek
2. Encourage children and young people to talk about their feelings – this is not always easy if the children or young people struggle with communication, can’t find the right words or just don’t have the confidence to say something. In these cases, you can try to use visuals, social stories or feeling cards, even emojis to get the children to describe or point to how they feel. There are some good resources on https://www.blobtree.com/ which can be used to start conversations and some advice for talking to younger children on the CBBC site https://www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies/joinin/talking-to-your-child-about-emotions.
3. Fundraise or donate – look on the main website for ideas and ways to raise vital funds to help Place2Be continue its important work. Every penny counts and can be used to help children with mental health issues so think about having a cake sale, coffee morning, or sponsored event to raise an extra few pounds/dollars
What to do if you are concerned about a child or young person
If you are concerned about the mental health of your own child or young person in your care, then contact your GP or medical service, or one of the organisations listed below who will be able to direct you to more detailed services. The list is primarily for UK-based groups but you can find more worldwide resources here too.
If you are concerned about a child or young person’s general wellbeing or general health and safety, you can contact your local children’s social services.
If you think a child or young person is in immediate danger or harm or abuse, then you should call the police.
So let’s all pull together and try to tackle this mental health crisis, and let childhood return to being happy and carefree!
Organisations providing mental health support to children and families include:
References and more information
- Nuffield Trust News