We know that in the past couple of years many things such as the pandemic, rising living costs and exam uncertainty have added to the mental health challenges young people were already facing.
So there has never been a more important time to facilitate conversation around how they are really feeling.
Prior to the pandemic, 1 in 6 young people ages 5-16 were already diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and this number may now be even higher, given the increase in depression and anxiety-related disorders experienced by many during the pandemic.
According to the former children’s commissioner, Anna Longfield, suicide attempts and self-harm are now ‘part and parcel of school life.’ (1)
Unfortunately, only a third of young people who need to are able to access any effective treatment. This means that high numbers of young people are being left to struggle without much, or any, support.
In the past year, CAMHS has seen an increase of 15% in referrals to their services. Amongst those needing the most support are young people who identify as LGBT; those with special educational needs and disabilities and those who are victims of hate-related bullying.
Additionally, those experiencing some kind of financial or relational adversity at home are also more likely to have poor mental health. And looked after children are more than four times more likely to experience mental health conditions than their peers.
Often these are the young people who find it hardest to talk about what is affecting their mental health, but whom we need to be most aware of. As a foster carer, I am regularly engaged in conversations with a number of young people who struggle with questions about their identity and self-worth, impacting their mental wellbeing.
In May this year, the Government pledged £10 million to extend senior mental health training to reach more young people in schools and colleges. The plan is to train up a senior mental health lead in schools to support young people and help them access the support they need.
By 2023, the aim is to have 400 mental health support teams covering a third of all pupils, but this means that two-thirds may still be lacking the support needed. (2)
An enquiry by the Commission on Young Lives has said that, in reality, a once-in-a-generation £1bn recovery package is needed to boost the overstretched NHS and offer timely and consistent help to young people.
With the current cost of living crisis, we know that there are also many families who are facing huge pressures about the future and a number of university students have reported mental health or anxiety issues caused by financial worries.
So what can we do as educators and parents?
We know that over half of all mental health disorders start before the age of 14, which is why it is important to get children speaking about this subject from an early age, so it is not shrouded in stigma or shame as they grow up.
In the statutory Relationships, Sex and Health Education framework, it states that from primary school age children are to learn to recognise that mental wellbeing is a normal part of daily life, in the same way as physical health, and that there is a normal range of emotions and scale of emotions that all humans experience in relation to different experiences and situations.
As part of this curriculum, young people are also to be taught how to recognise and talk about their emotions and the emotions of others, as well as knowing who to speak to if they are worried about someone else’s mental wellbeing or their ability to control their own.
It recommends teaching on the benefits of regular exercise, being outdoors and community or voluntary participation as ways of promoting mental well-being and happiness.
Additionally, it emphasises the importance of teaching students a range of healthy coping skills so that they can build resilience for when difficulties arise.
As reported by our Esteem Network members recently, emotional wellbeing was the second topic most requested by schools this year - after that of consent. Many schools want to help the young people they work with but lack the time and resources to be able to do this, which is where we as non-judgmental youth practitioners come in.
At acet UK, we are currently working hard to create and start to roll out a number of materials for primary schools on mental wellbeing as response to this, which we hope will build up the self-esteem and emotional strength of children and young people we work with.
Having a teenager with mental health challenges can be a source of worry and stress for parents or caregivers too. It is important that caregivers are able to practice self-care as a good modelling tool for young people, and that they show that asking for help as an adult is also normal to do.
UNICEF suggests some helpful tips for parents/carers of teenagers to support them with opening up and working through areas of emotional conflict together. (3)
- Observing changes in behaviour or sleeping difficulties can be early signs that something is wrong.
- Being there to listen, as well as taking what they say seriously are the first steps to communicating honestly and helping young people work through their feelings.
- Making time to do positive, fun activities together can also be a way to distract young people from any negative thoughts and provide a chance to open up,
What other support is available?
There are a number of charities that offer specialised support or information for those who live or work with young people who suffer from mental health difficulties. Young Minds, Mind, Kooth, Childline and Anna Freud are just some of these.
On the CAMHS resource webpage, there are links around a whole range of mental health-related topics, such as bereavement, eating disorders, anxiety etc.
As RSE educators we may not have all the answers, but it is our job to at least signpost young people to the support they need so they are not left to struggle alone and so that they can start to build bright, positive futures.
Fegans.org.uk – counselling for children support for parents
(2) '£1bn needed to speed up mental health care for UK children' | The Guardian
(3) 'Four things you can do to support your teen’s mental health' | UNICEF Parenting