Instances of children and teenagers seeking treatment for mental health related problems in the UK are soaring alarmingly. A&E attendance by young people with psychiatric conditions has almost doubled over the past five years, according to the Department of Health and Social Care. Meanwhile, over the past two years alone, the number of children reaching out to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) has more than doubled. In this setting, it is starkly clear that helping children with their mental health is vital if they are to grow into well and happy adults.
Not every young person self-referring for mental health reasons will meet the diagnostic criteria for a particular condition, like anxiety or depression. However, it is necessary that everyone in distress has access to appropriate care – regardless of their diagnostic status – and that it is responsively matched to the scope and scale of their problem.
This is sadly not the case currently in the UK. In 2018, Young Minds conducted a survey of parents whose children have accessed emergency services for mental health, revealing that 61% of parents would describe the level of care received as “bad” or “unacceptable.” Meanwhile, 86% affirm that “it would have been helpful for my child to have access to support before they reached crisis point.”
Kids and teens must be given the inner resources to upend their damaging thought patterns and behaviors themselves, before these spiral into bigger problems. This article explores five powerful ways that parents, caregivers and teachers can help young people discover the means to bounce themselves out of an automated self-scare routine and develop a personalised set of conscious self-care practices.
1. Get creative. Establishing habits is something that humans are very good at. Indeed, our lives can be conceptualised as the sum of the habits we have; these determine our actions as we move through the day, and in turn, how we make ourselves feel. The good news is that it only takes four weeks to establish a new habit, particularly with daily repetition. Guided to add hands-on activities like woodwork and crafting to their daily programme, kids will discover empowering new skills that can boost their self-esteem, as well as providing a constructive coping mechanism to help soothe an overactive mind during moments of anxiety.
2. Keep active. Exercise brings about several important neurophysiological changes. Whatever the activity, a good workout boosts our endorphins, the hormones that promote happiness, reducing pain and stress. The sense of achievement that can be generated by the sensation of making progress and increasing kids’ abilities catalyses a can-do attitude that spills joyously into other areas of life. Whether their victory consists of surmounting a hurdle, finding new flexibility in yoga or something else entirely, all kids should be given the opportunity to discover how beating their personal best is conducive to cultivating their personal zest.
3. Make time for downtime. In a world which bombards us with constant stimulation, acquiring the tools to relax at will is vital for maintaining a sense of balance. People who discover meditation in childhood have a massive advantage when it comes to tapping easily into reserves of inner calmness. Meditation for anxiety is a technique which is particularly easy to teach and take up – practicing simply involves repeating a personal mantra or focusing on the breath throughout a practice session, and letting other thoughts come and fall away – and kids can do it anywhere, anytime. These important moments act as a reboot for the brain, helping boost creativity, focus and confidence throughout the rest of the day.
4. Sleep soundly. It is impossible to overstate how intrinsic sleeping well is to good mental health. Equally, problems like lethargy during the school day, difficulty falling asleep or having regular nightmares can be useful indicators that a young person is experiencing psychological struggles, so encouraging children to report back on the quality of their rest is recommended. Activities like dream journaling can be introduced to facilitate this dialogue and to establish a bedtime routine that re-enchants them with the magic of sleep.
5. Freshen up. Like sound sleep, clean teeth and freshly washed hair are easily taken for granted – but these essential grooming measures become conspicuous in the event of their absence. Guiding kids to take pride in their personal hygiene will help them glow inside and out, as well as avoiding unnecessary self-consciousness and potential bullying.
The importance of employing preventative measures such as these to safeguard the mental health of young people has long been recognised. In the 1800s, the American orator Frederick Douglass observed, “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken [adults].” It is time the provision of mental healthcare evolved to reflect this.
Growing up in today’s world may be different from previous decades in many respects, and its myriad stressors can vary greatly depending on what part of the world you are in. However, in all contexts, a holistic and preventative approach to improving young people’s mental health would be helpful. Greater energy must be channelled into equipping everybody early on with the means to cultivate resilience.
Words Rosalind Stone