‘It’s so important to talk to all children regularly about their mental health’

It’s not always the disruptive children who are struggling.

It’s often the quiet, obedient children trying to fly under the radar who need help.

And so it’s important to talk to all children regularly, about their mental health.

READ MORE:Not everyone’s journey to parenthood starts with a scan picture on social media

One in 10 young people will experience a mental health problem. That’s three in every classroom.

Meaning, that if your child isn’t dealing with any mental health issues, they are very likely to be in a friendship, or at least in close contact with someone who is.

The theme of this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week is Growing Together, encouraging children (and adults) to consider how they have grown and how they can help others to grow.

To be able to grow together, we need to communicate well. So how do we give our children the language to understand and communicate their mental health? This week I spoke to some of the amazing parents, carers and professionals who are working hard to help our children open up.

Now that talking about mental heath is more normalised, it’s hard to think back to a time when it wasn’t. But that really wasn’t very long ago. Adults I spoke to as young as 25, don’t recall any mental health resources or information available during their childhoods.

Ellie, 25, said: “I really wish my parents had talked to me about mental health when I was a kid. I grew up thinking my mentality was normal. I was really loud in class and had to be the centre of attention. I was so mischievous in school.

“I’ve always suffered with bad mood swings and depression, but I thought that was just the way I was. It’s taken until now for me to be on the pathway for ADHD and that’s only because I took it upon myself. If I’d been more aware of mental health from a young age, I could have got so much more help.”

Helplines and support groups

The following are helplines and support networks for people to talk to, mostly listed on the NHS Choices website

  • Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at [email protected]
  • CALM Campaign Against Living Miserably (0800 58 58 58) is a leading movement against suicide. It runs a UK helpline and webchat from 5pm to midnight 365 days a year for anyone who has hit a wall for any reason, who need to talk or find information and support.
  • PANDAS (0808 1961 776) runs a free helpline and offers a support service for people who may be suffering with perinatal mental illness, including prenatal (antenatal) and postnatal depression plus support for their family or network.
  • Childline (0800 1111) runs a helpline for children and young people in the UK. Calls are free and the number won’t show up on your phone bill.
  • PAPYRUS (0800 068 41 41) is an organisation supporting teenagers and young adults who are feeling suicidal.
  • Mind (0300 123 3393) is a charity providing advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. They campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.
  • Students Against Depression is a website for students who are depressed, have a low mood or are having suicidal thoughts.
  • Bullying UK is a website for both children and adults affected by bullying.
  • Amparo provides emotional and practical support for anyone who has been affected by a suicide. This includes dealing with police and coroners; helping with media enquiries; preparing for and attending an inquest and helping to access other, appropriate, local support services. Call 0330 088 9255 or visit www.amparo.org.uk for more details.

  • Hub of Hope is the UK’s most comprehensive national mental health support database. Download the free app, visit hubofhope.co.uk or text HOPE to 85258 to find relevant services near you.
  • Young Persons Advisory Service – Providing mental health and emotional wellbeing services for Liverpool’s children, young people and families. tel: 0151 707 1025 email: [email protected]
  • Paul’s Place – providing free counselling and group sessions to anyone living in Merseyside who has lost a family member or friend to suicide. Tel: 0151 226 0696 or email: [email protected]
  • The Martin Gallier Project – offering face to face support for individuals considering suicide and their families. Opening hours 9.30-16.30, 7 days a week. Tel: 0151 644 0294 email: [email protected]

Today, nurseries and early years are working hard to provide our children with the vocabulary for mental health, as soon – or even before – they can talk.

Katy, who runs a chain of nurseries in London, said: “From very young we use colours for the babies to explain their feelings. The ‘Colour Monster’ and ‘Ruby’s Worry’ are really good early learning books that provide tools for young babies to relate to their feelings without knowing the words.

“We always explain to the children when they are angry, upset or anxious that it is fine to be so and explain what makes us feel that way. We get the children to try and communicate with their peers what they can do to support their friends and talk about what helps them feel calm and safe.”

Sioned, an ELSA (Emotional Literacy Support Assistant) teaches children about their emotions.

“We are seeing more and more children from as young as four starting school with so many emotional issues. But because they are so young their emotional vocabulary is very limited or even non existent.

“We as a school have now set up ELSA sessions where children can come and explore their feelings and emotions in a safe environment. But to be able to do this, we have to break everything down into the simple forms.

“One technique I use is the emotional train, the idea is that all the children jump aboard the emotional train with their baggage. We choose a destination together and explore what they will feel when we reach the destination.

“Once on this train we talk about what emotions we have in our baggage and as we reach each train station we drop off this bag, with the intention of when we reach the final destination the child has talked through their emotions and know that we have worked through it and have left it behind.

‘It’s so important to talk to all children regularly about their mental health’
Sarah Sandison on the beach with her son Sonny

“Another strategy we have is the feeling jar. When talking to the children we assign a feeling or emotion with a specific colour, a jar is then painted and decorated by the children in a specific colour to represent a feeling.

“When a child has a emotion that they wish to deal with they can pick a item, that being a button, toy car or crayon in the colour assigned to the emotion and pop it in the jar.

“We chat about what they are feeling, about ways to deal with the feeling and how to carry on forward. Once the item is in the jar it has been dealt with.

“Feedback from the children, their parents and also teachers is that they have seen a difference in behaviour and also the children’s general well being. Children are more open to talk about their emotions and also able to recognise emotions in others.”

Some parents are finding creative ways to help their child describe their feelings. Sarah said: “My daughter (four) draws what she’s feeling. She draws a picture of how she’s feeling and passes it to me. It’s a great way of communicating at a time when she or I might be too angry or upset to say the right things.”

Lots of parents are still unsure how to approach the subject of mental health with young children. Cari said: “I wouldn’t really know where to start, I’ve always reassured my children when they’re feeling nervous or upset that it’s absolutely fine. That they’re allowed to feel these feeling and can talk to mum about it. But they’re still so young, so I don’t really know how to approach it.”

We can only meet our kids at the level we’re at. So, if – like for a lot of us – mental health wasn’t mentioned when we were young, we may struggle to find the tools to help our children.

Phil Bridges, founder at Liverpool based mental health organisation The Mind Map said: “Completing a youth mental health first aid course is a great place to start.

“Just learning to spot basic signs and symptoms of mental ill health and feeling equipped to have a difficult conversation, in a non-judgemental manner, can be empowering. We are also blessed with some fantastic organisations here in Liverpool such as The Merseyside Youth Association, so be sure to reach out to services for help.”

Anxiety is a word we often hear from people describing their mental health, particularly among young people and teenagers. Frankly, if you put me in a room with 30 strangers of exactly the same age and asked me questions and made us all do physical activities, I’d be anxious!

Sometimes it seems like everyone you talk to has an anxiety disorder. Could it be that we’re overusing the word anxiety to describe another feeling that we may not have the language for? Such as anger, awkwardness, boredom, confusion, empathy pain, fear, nostalgia, jealousy, disappointment, embarrassment, sadness, surprise, anticipation, distrust, listlessness and more.

21% of the people I spoke to said they almost never speak to their children about mental health. Many say they feel their children are too young yet, or they don’t want to burden them.

Parent Eleanor said: “I don’t remember talking to my girls about mental health when they were school age. They are 30 and 26 now, but it just wasn’t something that as a parent I felt you were made aware of, unfortunately.

“My youngest missed months of school when she was 13, which looking back should have been treated as a mental health issue. Very little support was available, although she was eventually accepted onto the Child & Adolescent Mental Health programme.

“My eldest daughter is now an English teacher and a mental health ambassador. She has an eight year old son and the difference I see in her parenting priorities to mine is evident.”

Thanks to social media, mental health activists and campaigners, there are plenty of stories and information accessible today, to help people feel less alone.

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