Mental Health Awareness Week was launched by the Mental Health Foundation in 2000. In previous years, it concentrated on issues such as anxiety, sleep deprivation and exercise and their affect our mental health; the difference between surviving and thriving; stress as a key factor in mental problems, and relationships – how good supportive relationships are key to our mental health. In its 19th year, the current Mental Health Awareness week’s theme is ‘body image’, promoted with the hashtag #BeBodyKind. What we think about our bodies can impact us throughout our lives, affecting the way we feel about ourselves and our mental health and wellbeing.
But body image and its affect on mental health is only a facet of mental health issues. Mental health problems tend to start early and are particularly common in the young in the UK. In fact, most mental health problems develop in childhood or when a person is a young adult. Three-quarters of problems are established by the age of 24. Surveys suggest that more than half (56%) of children and young people say they worry “all the time” about at least one thing to do with their school life, home life or themselves.
According to NHS Digital, since the 1990’s, mental problems have been steadily on the rise and a sixth of the population in England aged 16 to 64 have a mental health problem. Whether it is family or friends, neighbours or work colleagues, the chances are we all know someone struggling with mental health issues. Why is this? Undoubtedly today people are more willing to report and admit mental health problems. But it is also clear that the 21st century is taking its toll on some people. Factors such as school, financial worry and an increased terror threat are all taking their toll, as well as social media. So what can be done to support our children’s mental health and promote a positive environment in which they can thrive?
With mental health problems on the rise, many teachers find themselves on the front line, witnessing an increase in stress, anxiety and panic attacks in their pupils, as well as a rise in depression, self-harm and eating disorders. There is a very real emphasis on finding out how best to help young people under pressure, as well as to look at why they are under pressure, how to spot the early warning signs of mental health problems such as depression, and how to best deal with self-harm and eating disorders as well as the misuse and the need for affirmation on social media.
In the independent sector, the former Head of Wellington College, Sir Anthony Seldon is widely acknowledged for bringing concerns about young people’s mental health into the mainstream and discussing innovative ways of tackling them. He realised that a different kind of language was needed for talking about emotional wellbeing. And when the Head of one of what might seem the epitome of British stiff upper lip masculine schools, traditionally known for rugby and CCF, talked about emotion without looking weak or vulnerable, people took notice.
Since Anthony Seldon’s initiatives, many independent schools have been prioritising their pupils’ safety and emotional wellbeing above everything else, identifying and tackling some of the causes of mental health problems and looking at ways that pupils can build emotional resilience. Today, many independent schools have in-house counselling service, where pupils can openly discuss their mental health issues and get professional support – just a few years ago it would have been a rarity. Mental heal and wellbeing are increasingly covered on the curriculum. Activities like mindfulness, meditation, yoga and Pilates – all seen as ways to promote good mental health – are increasingly part of life at many schools. PSCHE – Personal, Social, Citizenship, Health and Economic Education-programme – promotes good mental health through consideration of different topics. Mental health is not treated in isolation – it is integrated into academic process, even areas like drama, in role play and sport, where fair play is seen as a valuable skill to learn. It’s been widely recognised that openly talking about mental health is of vital importance, pupils should know that when they are at school, they can approach any teacher, their tutor, Housemaster, Head of Section or the Chaplain, whoever they feel most comfortable with.
Many schools run sessions for parents on issues of pastoral concern. Here at Gabbitas, we want to support our clients in every aspect of parenting. We have unparalleled expertise in finding schools for children with special needs, be it dyslexia, ADHD, Asperger’s or depression. We’ve also compiled a list of recommendations to parents on how to support children if you, as a parent, think they might have mental health issues.
1. Encourage conversation
In a world of emojis, acronyms and abbreviations, it’s important to take some time out to talk to your child, without overwhelming or intimidating them. Be casual when you first start the conversation and let them speak, without voicing too many of your own opinions. That way, you will make sure that they tell you how they feel, rather than what they think you’d like to hear.
The conversation doesn’t necessarily have to be about mental health – it’s just about making them feel comfortable with talking to you so that, if something does start upsetting or worrying them, they know they can turn to you. Talking to your child about mental health is a good thing and if they want to discuss it with you, all the better. The more secure they feel about talking to you, about problems big or small, the more likely they are to be open.
2. Be patient
The thought that your child’s mental wellbeing might be suffering is undoubtedly hugely worrying for a parent, and this worry can often turn to frustration and feelings of helplessness. However, it is important to wait until your child is ready to share. It can take them some time to open up, acknowledge their feelings and be able to articulate them fully. They might feel ashamed or embarrassed. It is important that you don’t push them and let them talk to you when they are comfortable, not because they are pressurised to do so. Patience can be especially difficult for parents, as they want to help and might feel frustrated at times, but try to persevere and remain calm. Meantime, talk to someone yourself, share your thoughts in confidence with a close friend or family member, who can offer support and advice.
3. Be present
It can be difficult at times to balance work and parenthood at the same time as worrying about your child’s wellbeing. However, it is essential that you carve out a bit of time each day to just be one-on-one with your child, whether it is simply to talk or do something fun. Switch off your phone, ignore any emails and just focus on quality time together.
4. Don’t overreact
There’s no doubt that being a modern teenager is tough, but it’s important to identify the difference between adolescent phases and other, more permanent, issues. While it is natural for a parent to be worried about their child, it is also vital to remember that children will go through stages as they experience new emotions. They might be adapting to a new change in their life, perhaps it is a new school, a new circle of friends or even a small change in their routine. Often, with the right support from their family, children’s behaviours can change and go back to how they were. Be sure to monitor changes in your child’s behaviour over time as, if you do end up having cause for concern, this will help identify any possible patterns in their moods.
5. Look after yourself
Remember that you are the ultimate role model for children, and that includes leading by example when it comes to mental health and general wellbeing. It will also do you some good, too. Look after your own mental health, as that can only have a positive impact on your family. Similarly, think about how you show your own emotions of anger and distress in front of your kids, as they are likely to take a lot of behavioural cues from you.
6. Make sure your child gets enough sleep
A recent survey showed that just 15% of British teenagers’ report getting enough sleep, relaxation and exercise. These three things are crucial to a healthy mind set, so be sure to instil the importance of these factors in your children.
7. Seek help
If you have persistent worries about your child, then it is important to do something about it. Often, it can be enough to ask your child what they think might help them to feel better and to implement the change. However, they may be unwilling to speak to you about their problems or they don’t know themselves what could help. If you are deeply concerned, you should visit your GP – your child can have a one-on-one meeting with them, or you can talk about your concerns and ask for some guidance. Alternatively, discuss your concerns with your child’s teacher or school, they may be able to offer your child support during the week.
There are also many charities and organisations which offer information and support to parents and young people that are worried or affected. Some also have helplines that you can contact and speak to someone directly. Amongst them:
Young Minds https://youngminds.org.uk/
Heads Together https://www.headstogether.org.uk/
Minds Ahead https://www.mindsahead.org.uk/
Also, check out the personal development and mental health app Remente https://www.remente.com/