Until a few years ago, I could count on one hand the number of times that Imagine has been asked to do work in schools and community organisations working with children in the last 20 years. That’s probably because the work Imagine does is predominantly with adults. 5 or so years ago we had a small project supporting school leavers with learning difficulties to access real work placements; while I’m almost certain that their mental health was impacted in a mostly positive way, the focus wasn’t on mental health per say. As Children’s Mental Health Week 2023 approaches (6th to 12th February 2023) it seems a good time to reflect on the journey Imagine has taken to improve the mental wellbeing of the children and young people in our communities.

Shortly after qualifying to instruct Adult Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), I went on to train as a Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor. In many ways, running youth courses made sense; all MHFA courses support important ideas which Imagine value so closely such as resilience, prevention, early intervention, social inclusion and challenging stigma. For Imagine, working with schools, colleges and community organisations to improve the mental wellbeing for adults of the future could have a real impact.

I qualified to deliver the 2 day Youth course after completing 2 probationary sessions at a public school for girls in Oxford with a contact from my instructors course. I quickly realised that as a parent of teenagers, a scout leader of many years and an experienced MHFA instructor running a brilliant MHFA England course helped me to realise we’d made the right choice in including Youth MHFA courses to our training offer. One takeaway from these first sessions was further confirmation that poor mental health can effect anyone, no matter of age, gender, background or financial standing. Some of the biggest risk factors for girls at this school were loneliness, bullying and pressure to achieve.

The Youth MHFA training that followed with was with a local school and seemed far more familiar; it quickly became clear that this training was needed more than ever, especially in areas of deprivation and exclusion. Teachers and community youth workers are under an enormous amount of pressure – anyone working the voluntary and statutory sectors with people know about increased workloads and poor funding. Listening to the worries of a teacher during that course put this into perspective “we once had time to listen to each child’s problems, accessing CHAMS was easy and problems seemed to be fewer. It was only a few years ago that we had a full time School Nurse who was always on hand for emotional support”. I hear statements like this over and over whenever I’m around adults who work with children.

So, how can we who are parents, teachers, community workers, friends or family members make that difference in a child’s life, helping them through a crisis or emerging difficulties? It sounds daunting, but very little can make a big difference. A US study in the 1990s by healthcare insurance company Keiser Permanente found a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, incarceration, and employment challenges in adulthood. This no doubt includes increased poor mental health and mental illness both in childhood and as an adult. What was very striking is the study showed positive support from a significant person in that child’s life could turn the tables and make a significant difference to their future life-chances.

This year’s theme for Children’s Mental Health Week is “Let’s Connect”. Healthy connections are what makes world go round – they enable change to take place when needed and strengthen resilience against rough times. For young people, good connections often lead to activities, hobbies and interests; in turn leading to natural supports; connections drive all of Imagine’s work, but are so sadly lacking when someone is struggling with their mental health. When I think of “Let’s Connect” I think of the Five Ways to Wellbeing, a simple reminder that doing things we enjoy daily increases our resilience and wellbeing. If we are supporting children and young people in any capacity, giving them the skills and confidence to connect should, at the very least, be at the back of our minds.

As waiting lists to see professionals increases and GPs seem to be busier than ever before, the need for connections, or “Other Supports” as described by MHFA England are vital. Whether it’s while children wait to be seen or they don’t reach a threshold for diagnosis and intervention, it’s the small things that can count. Other Supports are especially important if the young person is experiencing a mental health crisis; warning signs of a crisis emerging are more likely to be spotted, and in a crisis, they are more likely to explore solutions and make good choices if they are encouraged by someone they trust. Actions of good role models and peers make can make it easier to speak out and ask for help when having problems too. In this context, it’s helpful to think of being connected as having a huge safety net around us; the more connected we are, the less likely we are to slip through a hole in the net. Friendships are a valued element of peer support:A recent survey in The London Borough of Merton found that young people are most likely to seek support from parents (63.5%) followed by friends (54.3%) and family members (47.9%).

5 years on, Imagine have trained over 200 adults to be Youth Mental Health First Aiders. We run a mixture of open or closed courses – face to face and online. As a mental health charity, Imagine is honoured to have delivered the half day MHFA England Youth Mental Health Aware training to 6th form college students on a number of occasions. I find doing these sessions inspiring and full of hope for the future. By having facilitated conversations with 16 to 18 year olds, we are able to help strengthen peer connections, and increase their skills so they can better support each other.There are many struggles young people face, some new, others age old, but by choosing to invest in mental health awareness many are taking a step that most didn’t have the opportunity to do in the past.

Ant Dowell is our Mental Health Instructor. As well as Mental Health First Aid, we cover areas such as Suicide Awareness, Bereavement through Suicide, Workplace Mental Health. We also offer bespoke mental health wellbeing sessions for children and young people. You can find out more about the work Imagine Independence does here: https://www.imagineindependence.org.uk/.If you want to know more about the organisations involved in Children’s Mental Health Week, please go to https://www.childrensmentalhealthweek.org.uk/. We recommend Papyrus https://www.papyrus-uk.org/ , Kooth https://www.kooth.com/ , or https://www.nhs.uk/every-mind-matters/supporting-others/childrens-mental-health/if you have immediate concerns for someone you support or for yourself.

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