Mental Health and Children

This week is Children’s Mental Health Week. But what exactly do we mean by ‘mental health’, and can it really be a major issue in children?

What is mental health?

 When we talk about ‘mental health’ we are referring to more than just mental disorders. Mental health is an integral part of everyone’s health - we all have it, just as we have physical health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), good mental health is key for allowing us to think, feel, interact with each other and enjoy our lives. It gives us the ability to realise our full potential and cope with daily stressors. 

 It sounds pretty straightforward, so we often take our mental health for granted. However, just as our physical health needs care, so does our mental health. As our mental health can seem less evident than our physical health - that is, there are fewer outward signs of how healthy we are - we sometimes underestimate the importance of it and the hardships of having mental health struggles. Nonetheless, it can drastically affect how we live, feel, think and act, so we do need to take care of it.

 So what triggers mental health disorders?

 Just as with physical illnesses, there is no one answer. Sometimes the symptoms can occur because of major life events; sometimes it can be an accumulation of day-to-day stress; sometimes it can be due to genetic factors; sometimes it can seem to appear “out of blue” and, sometimes, it can be an interaction of multiple factors. Just as you wouldn’t question the existence of a headache based on its cause, the reason a mental health disorder develops doesn’t make it any more or less valid.

 Is mental health a problem for children?

 We might think that children are too little to experience mental health struggles. After all, what kind of life struggles do they have, and could they really internalise them that deeply? Well, if we take a step back and consider a child’s daily life, we can see that they do, actually, face many different causes of stress. It could be family conflicts, bullying, arguments, exams, competitions, relationships, making decisions, moving, changing school, being rejected, losing or any number of other things. And, on top of all that, they are still rapidly developing both physically and psychologically. 

 Children are extremely sensitive to what is happening around them and often take situations very personally - in fact, half of mental health conditions develop by the age of 14. This is reflected in the WHO’s statistics for children’s mental health problems around the globe: 10-20% children and adolescents worldwide experience mental health issues, and these numbers have been gradually rising since 1999. Now, as of October 2020, 1 in 6 children in the UK experience mental health problems. To put that into context, in a class of 30 children, 5 will have mental health issues.

 So how can you support children’s mental health?

 :)   Take care of your own mental health. Spend time doing the things you enjoy, maintain a social circle to interact with (online counts!), and don’t be afraid to ask for support if you need it from your family, friends, colleagues, community or professionals. 

 :)   Destigmatize mental health. We all have it, we all should take care of it and sometimes we might need help with it. Even when your child is not experiencing any issues, there is a high chance they will know someone who is and, when someone is going through a tough time, they need support, not judgement. Try to talk about mental health openly and honestly at home.

 :)   Listen. Give your child the sense that they can always come to you to talk. You can encourage this behaviour by not only telling them they can always talk to you but by making sure you listen and respond whenever they do. Encourage your child to talk to you about how they are feeling, and be an attentive and non-judgemental listener. Try to avoid interrupting or devaluing feelings, and remember to be present and show you are listening. Sometimes, simply talking to someone who listens and shows understanding can help us to feel less emotionally overwhelmed.

 :)   Teach your child emotional literacy from an early age. Talk about and name different emotions, and, together, find methods for dealing with them. 

 :)   Support their self-expression. After all, we can only be ourselves! While we are growing up, we are in a particularly active search to discover our identity and preferences.

 :) If you are concerned about an abrupt and prolonged change in your child’s behaviour, and you are unsure of how to help, your GP can be the first point of contact. They can then refer you to a counsellor or more specialised help. Alternatively, you can contact mental health services directly by searching for your local CYPMHS (Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services)
It might sound like a difficult topic to broach with your little one but, in reality, we all need sincere connections, understanding, open conversations, and self-love. Let’s treat children with respect, and value their feelings.

 If you would like to learn more about mental health in children, here are a few of our favourite resources:

 By the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families – an animation designed for children to help them better understand what mental health is.

 A children’s mental health charity with experience working with pupils, families and staff in UK schools, offering free mental health training for teachers and school staff.

The National Institute for Mental Health

Here, you can find more information on what to do if you are worried about the mental health of your little one.

Content Manager & Psychologist at MEplace
next article