Ah, something very close to my heart, literally. Children. Especially my children.
As a dad, I’m delighted to see that this year’s World Mental Health Day is putting kids centre-stage. The awareness day is entitled: 'Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World.'
Like any parent, I have concerns about my children growing up in a world that looks so staggeringly different to the one I grew up in. Pretty sure it is the same world, but it often doesn’t feel like it.
My kids, for instance, are genuinely shocked that I didn’t have a mobile phone or iPad when I was at school. Not that long ago, while driving through a local village, I had to explain what a phone box was! You get the picture.
And no, I’m not about to bang the ‘Social Media is Bad’ drum here. Social media can be, and often is, a force for good. It allows people whose voices are soft (or sometimes silenced) to speak clearly. And it provides others with a mechanism to come forward and seek help and support where they would not normally have done so. Okay, the incessant ‘keeping up with the Jones's’ is a less virtuous dimension – and perhaps an issue for a future blog.
My point is this: The world is changing but the role of parents isn’t. Never has.
We still need to equip our children for the world they face. And that’s tricky because most of us didn’t grow up in that world, so it’s not really the world we know. Fortunately, good old-fashioned virtues like trust, honesty, integrity and being supportive still prevail in the modern digital world. Experience has taught us that.
And experience is one area where parents continue to trump their kids. Investing in our relationships and building trust such that we become the instinctive go-to source of support seems like a good place to start.
Yes, statistics around Young People's mental health both globally and in the UK are shocking. There’s a clear lack of funding and service availability. Birmingham University’s Mental Health Policy Commission identifies the funding and staffing gaps in its recent report: Investing in a Resilient Generation.
We know Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are massively underfunded. Despite promises from government, money has yet to find its way to the front line.
In the UK, only around one in four children and young people who need help with their mental health actually get a service. By 2021, that will rise to one in three, according to the Commission’s report. But that still leaves two-thirds of those needing support with no access to it, which is nothing short of tragic if you look at these figures:
- Half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age, but most cases go undetected and untreated
- Globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents
- It is estimated that 62,000 adolescents died worldwide in 2016 as a result of self-harm
- Suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15 to 19-year-olds
- The consequences of not addressing adolescent mental health conditions extend into adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health, and limiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults
Right now, it appears that only those kids who are suicidal or have attempted suicide get a foot in the door. I did say the statistics were shocking.
The report also points out that scaling-up child and adolescent mental health services in the UK to ensure that every child receives timely support will require an extra 23,800 staff at a cost of £1.77 billion.
That funding won’t arrive overnight so, as parents and carers, we need to look at what more we can do to help our young people with their mental resilience.
Why does it hit kids hard?
Well, adolescence is a time of change. Think about changing schools, leaving home, starting university or a new job. Not to mention the physiological and hormonal changes young people endure, and the increasing importance of interpersonal (human) relationships that inevitably brings.
Okay, for many, these are incredibly exciting and rewarding times. But they can also be periods of significant stress and apprehension. In some cases, if not recognised and managed, these feelings can lead to mental illness.
Then there’s the increasing propensity for living a life ‘online’. You can’t tell me that doesn’t add extra pressure as connectivity to virtual networks at any time of the day and night grows.
The World Health Organisation explains it quite succinctly:
“Adolescence is a crucial period for developing and maintaining social and emotional habits important for mental well-being. These include adopting healthy sleep patterns, taking regular exercise, developing coping skills, problem-solving skills and interpersonal skills, and learning to manage emotions. Supportive environments in the family, at school, and in the wider community are also important.”
The plain fact is that the more risk factors adolescents are exposed to, the greater the potential impact on their mental health. And there are plenty of factors that can contribute to stress during adolescence if you think about it: a desire for greater autonomy, pressure to conform with peers, exploration of sexual identity, and increased access to and the use of technology.
Media influence and gender norms can further exacerbate the disparity between an adolescent’s lived reality and their perceptions or aspirations for the future.
Other important determinants for the mental health of adolescents include the quality of their home life and their relationships with their peers. Violence (including harsh parenting and bullying) and socio-economic problems are well-recognised risks to mental health. Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to sexual violence – and that has a clear association with detrimental mental health.
So what to do?
As always, prevention begins with better understanding. Much can be done to help build mental resilience from an early age. The goal is to prevent mental distress and illness among adolescents and young adults, and to manage mental illness and ways to recover from it.
Being aware of and understanding the early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness is a key element of prevention. With adolescents, that’s not always easy. Which of these do you think could be considered a warning sign:
- Locking themselves in their rooms
- Not being overly concerned with personal hygiene
- Not sleeping, eating or exercising properly (or regularly)
- Being short tempered, irritable and retreating into their own world
Each could be an obvious sign of mental ill health. On the other hand, they might simply describe every other teenager out there! And not all are mentally unwell, of course.
As parents or carers, we arguably know our children best, and do the best we can for them. But knowing how can be hard.
I don't pretend to have all the answers. Perhaps what we can do is help them build life skills to cope with the everyday challenges at home and at school.
But how to do that?
I think Stephen R Covey’s “Emotional Bank Account” idea is a great place to start. In his acclaimed book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he suggests that every interaction with your child is an opportunity to invest or ‘make a deposit’ in your relationship. I agree.
And it's in the everyday moments that the gold is to be found. More about the 'presence'than the 'presents'. I’m sure that the vast majority of good parents do this constantly and subconsciously, but it doesn’t hurt to plan to be a little more strategic about it. More engaging. More purposeful, perhaps. There's some great advice for parents here.
That’s why I’m pleased to see this year’s World Mental Health Day focusing on young people. In case we forget, they are the future!
Just from this exercise in thinking about the topic and writing this blog, I find myself more mindful of investing in the relationship I have with my kids now to build the balance in the emotional bank account, so that they know I will always be there for them.
“ENJOY THE LITTLE THINGS IN LIFE, FOR ONE DAY YOU’LL LOOK BACK AND REALISE THEY WERE BIG THINGS.” Robert Brault.