Time to Talk- Supporting children and young people with mental health

There has been a lot in the media about mental health recently, with the government promising that mental health will be a key focus of the NHS Long Term Plan. But we know that lots of parents will still have niggling questions. Dr Lee Hudson, Mental Health Lead at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health gives advice for concerned parents on the meaning of mental health and the best ways to provide support for their child.

What is mental health?

All of us, including children and young people, have mental health: it’s the state of our emotional and psychological wellbeing at any one time. Like physical health, mental health can be good or bad at different times in our lives. In fact, all of us will have difficulties with our mental health at some points in our lives - especially at difficult times, for example with the loss of a loved one. Mental health can also deteriorate because our physical health is poor, and vice-versa, so it isn’t helpful to separate the two as they often are.

Poor mental health can lead to low mood, or feeling more anxious. We may manage less well in our everyday lives, sometimes not enjoying activities that we usually love. However, poor mental health doesn’t have to be because of something that has happened, and some people just feel very low or very anxious for no reason.  When poor mental health becomes more severe, and significantly affects our life and wellbeing for longer periods of time, then it is considered an illness, or a disorder, such as depression or an anxiety disorder.

How big a problem are mental health issues for children and young people in the UK?

Mental health disorders in children and young people have been shown to be relatively common in the UK. The most recent survey in England showed that 1 in 8 children aged 5 - 19 years have a mental health disorder. Surveys have found similar rates in Scotland, and higher rates in Northern Ireland. 

Mental health is like physical health in that sometimes it can be good, and sometimes it can be bad. Yet people tend to think of it differently, perhaps because you can’t see it and  because there has been a long history of stigma around it. Like adults, children and young people often find it hard to acknowledge their own mental health difficulties, or to talk about them – so problems can be hidden or difficult to treat. 

The good news is that there are well-established, successful treatments and good recovery rates for many mental health disorders. However, there are big issues across the UK for access to services and treatments, and a major problem remains with acknowledging difficulties with mental health because of this stigma. 

We have all got a bit better in recent years at acknowledging and understanding mental health, but we still have a long way to go. Mental health problems deserve equal respect to physical disorders, and organisations like the RCPCH, alongside broader NHS organisations and the government, are working to make mental health better recognised and treated. 

How can I support and help my child with their mental health?

  • When you get the chance, take some time to consider how you think about mental health and what preconceived ideas you might have about it as an individual. What we say about mental health influences how our children think and respond to it too.
  • Try to make mental health – good and bad – a part of routine discussions you have in your family. There is already progress in schools for children to start talking about it. If we talk about it honestly and openly, this will help to challenge stigma and encourage children and young people to be able to talk and ask for help.
  • Don’t be afraid to discuss your own mental health and problems you may have had with your children. Parents are great role models, and children and young people can get a great sense of hope and comfort when they know the important and close people in their lives have had similar problems.
  • If your son or daughter becomes angry or distressed, try to be calm and understand that this is often how mental health disorders present and a way that young people can communicate their distress. Mental health problems can also make children become quiet and withdrawn. Ultimately, we know that recovery from prevalent mental health conditions is common. Being open and talking about it, in a non-judgemental way, is what children and young people both want and benefit from when they have problems with mental health, just as with many other challenges they have faced and will face in their lives.
  • Unfortunately, some children and young people with mental health problems can be so unwell that they think about hurting themselves – this includes cutting or thinking or trying to commit suicide. It’s a natural concern of many that talking about self-harm with someone who is unwell might influence them to do so. The reality is that it is more likely that someone is already thinking about self-harm, and rather than causing self-harm, a parent or professional asking about it is an important way of identifying risk and getting much needed help and support for it. See 'external links' for further resources on this.
  • Speak to your GP or call NHS 111 if you are worried about your son or daughter and if you’re really worried, especially about urgent risk, you should go to A&E with your son or daughter.