SUPPORTING OUR YOUNG PEOPLE IN THEIR TIME OF NEED
In the UK, 10% of children between the ages of five and 16 have a clinically diagnosable mental health condition, the Office for National Statistics has reported. The Children’s Society told us in its 2018 ‘Good Childhood Inquiry’, that 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems, do not get appropriate treatment at an early enough stage.
These are the children whose problems get noticed and who are seen by a medical professional, so the real figure could be much higher if we take into account all those children who decide to suffer in silence, alone and quietly.
If you are a grandparent, aunt or uncle, godparent, or yourself a parent of younger children, the chances are that a child in your circle will struggle with mental illness of some sort during their childhood or adolescence.
That’s a disturbing fact when we like to imagine that childhood is one of the happiest times of a person’s life. A time to be carefree and explore the world, to have adventures and learn fascinating things. However, the human world is not that idyllic, and perhaps it never really was. Children grow up surrounded by all sorts of pressures and challenges, and in recent decades some of these pressures have grown, while many of the innocent freedoms once celebrated in childhood have shrunk.
Receding childhood freedom?
As a child, I could go to the local park with my friends, unattended by an adult. From around the age of 12, I would call to my mother that I was going for a walk and she would ask how long I would be. I walked for miles, observing wildlife on the local common, a freedom seldom experienced by children today. Perceived danger is curtailing the development of our children and their capacity to be autonomous at a young age.
Dr Jonathan Haidt in his book The Coddling of the American Mind explores the causes of students who arrive at university without the psychological ability to cope with the challenges of independent living, criticism and different opinions. His research reveals that the age at which a child is permitted to go out of the house alone is very significant. If they have reached the age of 12 without that being the case, there will be real problems. Ideally, he thinks, this certainly should have happened by around the age of seven or eight.
Although life in the USA is different from the UK, we do tend to follow their trends. Lifestyles have changed considerably, so that children seldom play out on the streets where they live any more: the number of parked cars alone make it almost impossible. Then there’s the ‘stranger danger’ fear that gets out of control, and too often confines children to back gardens or always accompanied by an adult. I don’t want to reduce the seriousness of potential offences against children, but in reality the majority of such offences are actually committed by adults known to children, and if they don’t grow up learning how to assess situations for danger, and how to extricate themselves from them, later life is going to become very difficult. The family exists to care for the child and prepare them for adult life, so perhaps we should be driven far less by fear, than by the motivation for survival and how to help our children to keep themselves safe. The more robust a child is when they reach High School, the better prepared they will be to face the not inconsiderable challenges of puberty and peer pressure.
And what of the pressures outside of the control of the family? With so many ways to access information, our children are bombarded with messages that can have a lasting impact. Whether the pressure comes through face-to-face situations or technology-based ones, the impact can be life-changing and lifelong. What on earth can you do to help a child going through any of these issues? Fortunately, there is plenty of advice available.
It’s not just girls that are bombarded with images of how they ‘should’ look, although the industry targeting girls has been around and very aggressive for a long time. Programmes such as ITV’s current Love Island have a cult status and provide a completely unrealistic image of how you ‘must’ look in order to find love. There are readily available ‘filters’ you can apply to photos that you upload of yourself on the internet, creating false impressions – just like the photoshop techniques used on magazine models. The result is to create the impression that the way you really look is not ‘good enough’. A child who already has a low opinion of his or her body image will become prone to a number of mental health issues, such as eating disorders, chronic low self-esteem and anxiety.
So, what to do? Talk to them – but not in a pressured manner, rather approach it from a lighter angle if you think they may retreat into their shell. Here’s the advice from Young Minds:
The impact of bullying is the same whether it’s face-to-face or over social media, as are the techniques. When I was in my late twenties and visiting my family, my mum asked me to go and visit a girl I’d been at primary school with, but with whom I’d lost touch when we went to different secondary schools. I found a woman who had lost all the energy and character I remembered. She was clearly living with chronic depression, rarely going out of her flat or socialising with anyone; she was unable to work, she was barely living. She’d been bullied at her secondary school and it had left her a shadow of the child I’d known. The consequences of bullying, if left undealt with and its effects untreated, can be lifelong. The approach of years gone by, that it was to be endured and survived, was wrong: it has to be dealt with. Every school has an anti-bullying policy and mechanisms to deal with the problem, and it’s perfectly acceptable for parents and guardians to hold them to account and to meet with the headteacher if they’re not satisfied with the measures being taken.
A very modern problem influencing the style and level of bullying is the presence of social media, where there is no escape from the 24/7 availability; bullying no longer stops after school. Children can become sleep deprived, as they check their phones at all hours, anxious to see what is or isn’t being published about them on the internet. It’s important to keep the school informed about online bullying and if you feel it’s escalating, tell the police. Remember, social media isn’t all bad: it can provide a lifeline, valuable peer support and access to organisations who can provide real help to young people. Here’s some advice about bullying from Young Minds:
There is a downloadable pack available on the Young Minds website to help you spot the signs and support your child.
Watching someone you love suffering can feel unbearable; we want to wrap them in cotton wool and keep them safe, take the problem away, but most of the time we can’t do this. So what can you, as a family member, godparent or friend do to support a child or young person who’s struggling? Well, there are some important things we can do.
Provide a safe space where the pressures aren’t around and they can forget and feel secure and happy for a while. When I was a child, my home life was often difficult and emotionally unsafe and I often felt trapped (hence the long walks when I was old enough) but church was my safe space from a very young age. When I was at Sunday School, and later church and choir practice, I could forget about the problems at home and just be a child. Sometimes, this is enough to help a child survive whatever is going wrong in life. If you’re in a position to do a little more, provide the opportunity for activities such as cooking, craft, gardening: activities that keep the mind in the present moment and bring a sense of achievement and satisfaction.
Animals are wonderful therapists, so if you have one or more in your life, you could share them with the child. There are opportunities for therapeutic support where animals play a key role. Equine Guided Learning and Therapy is particularly effective – horses are extremely intuitive and adapt to meet the child where he or she is – and communicates both what they see and how the problems might be overcome. If a child can manage a half-ton horse, facing a school bully can shrink in size.
Educate yourself. Know what the problems are and what the symptoms of the various forms of mental illness are and when you need to seek professional help. Provision for children and young people with mental illness is patchy and often poor, and the budget cutbacks of the last decade have hit the services harshly, so you may need to fight to get the right care and treatment: so fight, a young person’s life could depend on it. Take a look at the informative guide on the Young Minds website, which discusses the different types of mental illness.
When I was 12, I belonged to the Guides. One evening when I was due to go to my Guide meeting, my mother was having a particularly bad mental health episode. I’d done the washing up and she’d been determined to find something wrong, so she came back from the kitchen claiming that there was food in the plug hole. She made me stand and listen for half an hour to her abusive litany about how awful and useless I was. Finally, when she’d stopped, I looked at the clock and realized that I had to make a choice: go to the meeting in my school uniform, or get changed and be late. I was desperate to get out of the house and didn’t want to be in trouble for being late, so I went in my school uniform. When I got to the meeting, the Guide Leader gave me a dressing down for not wearing my Guide uniform. Of course I didn’t explain why, I couldn’t. If you run a youth group, choir or uniformed organization, be aware that children won’t tell you what’s going on at home or school and, if they don’t present in the way you might like, do cut them some slack.
Warning: We’ll now explore the distressing, but sadly all-too-common topics of self-harm and suicide amongst young people. If you feel uncomfortable with reading this material, please do not read any further. We hope the information you’ve read so far has been useful.
Self-harm and suicide
These are scary subjects but the more you know about them, the more you will be able to help. The most important thing is for professional help to be sought and put in place at the earliest opportunity. It’s really hard as an adult not to try to take control as a way of protecting a child, but this in itself becomes an added pressure. Understanding that the child is an autonomous person and needs to find his or her own way of controlling the feelings that lead to desperate actions, can sometimes result in better outcomes than constantly watching and controlling them.
What is self-harm? Here is a definition from the MIND website: ‘Self-harm is when you hurt yourself as a way of dealing with very difficult feelings, painful memories or overwhelming situations and experiences.’ Some people have described self-harm as a way to:
- express something that is hard to put into words
- turn invisible thoughts or feelings into something visible
- change emotional pain into physical pain
- reduce overwhelming emotional feelings or thoughts
- have a sense of being in control
- escape traumatic memories
- have something in life that they can rely on
- punish yourself for your feelings and experiences
- stop feeling numb, disconnected or dissociated
- create a reason to physically care for themselves
- express suicidal feelings and thoughts without taking their own life
After self-harming the person may feel a short-term sense of release, but the cause of their distress is unlikely to have gone away. Self-harm can also bring up very difficult emotions and could make the individual feel worse. Even though there are always reasons underneath someone hurting themselves, it is important to know that self-harm does carry risks. Once you have started to depend on self-harm, it can take a long time to stop.
Ways of self-harming can include:
- cutting yourself
- poisoning yourself
- over-eating or under-eating
- biting yourself
- picking or scratching at your skin
- burning your skin
- inserting objects into your body
- hitting yourself or walls
- exercising excessively
- pulling your hair
- getting into fights where you know you will get hurt.
If a person self-harms, it is important that they know how to look after their injuries and have access to the first aid equipment they need. LifeSIGNS has information on first aid for self-injury and self-harm.
If you’re concerned about an injury or not sure how to look after it, go and see your GP.
Suicide and what to do if you think a child is suicidal
Suicide is the biggest killer of young people in the UK. And each year, 200 school children take their own lives. To help prevent this situation, an amazing organisation called Papyrus, a national charity, was established in 1997 by a mother, Jean Kerr, from Lancashire following the loss of her son to suicide. Papyrus have a service ‘HopelineUK ’which is a specialist telephone service staffed by trained professionals who give non-judgemental support, practical advice and information to children, teenagers and young people up to the age of 35 who are worried about how they are feeling or anyone who is concerned about a young person.
Tel: 0800 068 41 41, www.papyrus-uk.org
Here is a quote from Papyrus’ website under the headings of Silence kills and Being direct doesn’t hurt:
No young person should have to suffer alone with thoughts or feelings of hopelessness and nobody should have to go through the heartbreak of losing a young person to suicide. We hope and pray that through this article and by signposting readers to a selection of charities and organizations, help, understanding and support can be found in a time of great need.
YoungMinds Crisis Messenger (www.youngminds.org.uk)
Provides free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK if you are experiencing a metal health crisis.
If you need urgent help text: YM to 85258. (All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors. Texts are free from BT Mobile, iD Mobile, Sky, Lebara, EE, O2, Vodafone, Three, Virgin Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.
Youth Access (www.youthaccess.org.uk)
A place to go for advice and information about counselling in the UK, if you’re aged 12-25.
The Mix (www.themix.org.uk)
If you are under 25 you can talk to The Mix for free on the phone, by email or on their webchat. You can also use their phone counselling service, or get more information on support services you might need. Freephone: 0808 808 4994 (16.00 to 23.00 daily)
If you or a family member has an eating disorder, B-eat is the place you can go for information and support.
Helpline for under 25s: 0808 801 0711 (12.00 to 20.00 weekdays, 16.00 to 20.00 weekends and Bank Holidays).
Studentline: 0808 801 0811.
Anorexia and Bulimia Care (www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk)
Providing ongoing care, emotional support and practical guidance for anyone affected by eating disorders, those struggling personally and parents, families and friends.
Helpline 03000 11 12 13 (option 1: support line, option 2: family and friends).
Founded in 2002, LifesSIGNS is an online self-injury guidance and network support organization for both the self-harmer and for family and friends of those self-harming.
If a young person, or a young person you know is not coping with life, then for confidential suicide prevention advice phone 0800 068 41 41 – or visit their website.
Young Minds (www. youngminds.org.uk/find-help/for-parents/parents-helpline)
If you are worried about a child or young person, call their free helpline for confidential, expert advice on: 0808 802 5544.
 The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, published by Allen Lane, September 2018, £15.79 H/b, ISBN: 978-0241308356