A recent Bupa study shows 4.1 million young people have experienced symptoms of poor mental health over the last ten months of the Covid 19 Pandemic. As part of Children’s Mental Health Week, Imagine Independence’s mental health first aid lead, Antony Dowell, shares advice and guidance on how parents and teachers (or anyone in a support role) can support young people with their mental wellbeing during lockdown.
Mental health is becoming worse at an alarming rate across all age groups as the impact of the pandemic and the ongoing lockdown measures continues to grow – however, amongst our young people the increase is particularly significant.
The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has reported her concerns about the challenges that the pandemic is creating for children’s mental health services that were already stretched before March 2020. Eating disorders, depression, self-harm and anxiety disorders were all on the rise in young people before the pandemic.
However, a recent survey from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health showed that in some parts of the country, doctors have reported a three or four-fold increase in referrals to specialist child and adolescent mental health services in the last year, with the pandemic a major reason behind the rise.
Knowing how to spot the signs of poor mental health in young people – and understanding the first steps you can take in supporting them through this – can be crucial. Knowing that there is a difference between poor mental wellbeing and mental illness can be reassuring and helps us to understand that our mental health is never fixed, but moves up and down on a continuum, constantly changing.
This is normal for all of us and a small intervention, made at the right time and in the right way, can make a huge difference in protecting our mental wellbeing. There is a difference, however, between feeling concerned and anxious about things, which are a normal part of life, and feeling so overwhelmed and low in mood that you could be at risk of developing a mental illness if you don’t get timely access to support.
Risks of mental illnesses going unnoticed
For children that were experiencing poorer mental wellbeing prior to the pandemic hitting, repeated lockdowns have been really difficult. Being stuck at home in circumstances where their wellbeing deteriorates even more, increases the risk of them becoming really unwell before anyone can get involved and offer them the support they need. Being cut off from those adults, such as teachers, who know how to help them if they are becoming distressed, is increasing the risk to their wellbeing.
Similarly, loneliness and isolation, despite the digital age allowing young people to stay in touch with each other like never before, are increasingly impacting on mental health. Research shows that social media can have a range of positive effects for young people when their mental wellbeing is good, but when mental wellbeing is poor, it has the reverse effect.
Spotting the signs and understanding how to respond
Change is often the key alarm bell – if you spot something different or unusual in your child’s behaviour, you should check it out. If you notice that a young person has become more withdrawn, tearful or is experiencing mood swings, or if they are not eating, are being more secretive, or having trouble sleeping, please don’t ignore it. These can all be signs that they may be struggling with their mental wellbeing.
Understanding how to respond to these signs, however, is hugely important. A key element is trying not to make assumptions or judgements when talking about any issues they may be facing. Listening, not being judgemental, and saying things like ‘that must be difficult’, rather than trying to jump in and fix things straight away, may seem like an inadequate response. But it can make all the difference in encouraging them to open up to you about their challenges.
Knowing where to go for help
A key challenge for parents and teachers can be knowing when to seek help and where to go in a system that is difficult to navigate, particularly for families that may never been in need of support in the past.
If you are supporting a young person with their mental health, there are lots of external resources that you can use– for example, Kooth is a valuable resource offering free, safe and anonymous support.
Your local authority website will also have information about support and resources available to you.
If the situation is becoming more serious, a key route to support is always through your GP, who can refer you to more specialist NHS services.
It is important to remember that if you suspect a young person of being in the most serious of situations, where they may be having thoughts of death by suicide, that they need urgent help.
Don’t delay in calling the emergency services, who are trained to respond to a young person in such distress. You can also access training to develop your knowledge and confidence to speak with someone about death by suicide using the resources provided by the Zero Suicide Alliance and the Samaritans.
Youth Mental Health First Aid
I am proud to be trained to deliver the Youth Mental Health First Aid course, developed by Mental Health First Aid England. These target the different aspects of mental health, which can make a real difference in developing your understanding of the issues. I also provide practical techniques to help you support a young person experiencing mental health challenges. This course helps develop the skills to ask the right questions, and gives you the confidence to engage in conversations without feeling that you will make things worse.
Find out more on our website www.imagineindependence.org.uk or contact Antony directly on firstname.lastname@example.org. Enquire or book here for details of Imagine’s Mental health First Aid training courses.