There is an increasing mental health crisis among our children and young people. Dr Tanya Byron published a blueprint for change last year, demanding more funding and the government has pledged to do more. But what can parents, teachers and friends do to help the young people in their care?
It sounds obvious, but constant exposure to friends and foes on Facebook and Twitter means that teenagers never get down time. People are crueller behind a screen and arguments escalate quickly. Be wary too of Instagram, where young people post endless selfies for validation and criticism. Ensure that children have some internet-free time every day, and especially before bed.
Whilst we’re on the subject, we have so many screens and gadgets in our lives that it’s easy to think they own us. When my oldest son was just three, I asked him one day to fetch me a pen so I could write a shopping list. “But Mummy,” he said, “Why do you need a pen? I’ll just get your phone!” I felt pretty sad that he only ever saw more typing things onto that cursed screen and didn’t realise I could write too! Constant screen time makes us stressed. At the supermarket, fight your need for speed (and inevitable bagging area stress) by queueing up to be served by a human being and let your child see you engage in small talk.
Our physical health plays a large role in our mental well-being. At one school I taught at a number of the students were hooked on their caffeine energy drinks. They would be hyper for the first two lessons, then slump into a gloom after morning break. Encourage healthy diets.
Sleep plays a part, too; the NHS say that most people seeking help for mental health issues get less than 6 hours sleep a night.
It may seem a trendy fad, but studies suggest that mindfulness can help. It requires that you become fully aware of your body and your surroundings and relax into an almost meditative state. There are endless mindfulness apps and colouring books which will help you try to slow down and live in the moment.
If you think someone you know is beginning to struggle with their mental health, then try to get help as soon as possible. Talk to them. Encourage good habits. Speak to someone at their school. Early intervention can stop mental health problems escalating.
If you feel strongly about this issue, you could consider campaigning for improved services. Cuts to local authority budgets since 2010 have had a devastating impact on provision. The government pledged to spend £250 million a year on children’s mental health, but in fact spent just £177 million last year. CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) are struggling to keep up. Find out how you can help from the UK’s leading children’s mental health charity.
I am currently working for a Pupil Referral Unit in the south, having previously taught in comprehensives in Oxford and London. My particular interests are History and (English) Literature, but as a mum of two small boys I am also increasingly interested in debates surrounding primary education in general and parenting in particular.