Alistair Burt outlines why adults should talk to children and young people about mental health and introduces new online resources.
Why we must never stop talking about children and young people’s mental health
It’s been said before but it’s something definitely worth repeating – better mental health starts with a conversation. Achieving that first step – mustering the courage to share something so deeply personal and troubling – needs support, understanding and encouragement. This is especially true for children and young people. The insights we have indicate that men in particular find it more difficult to talk about mental health.
As adults, we sometimes find it hard to confront these kinds of problems. We worry about the reaction of work colleagues, friends and family – but for the young, still finding their way in the world, these worries can seem insurmountable at times. The taunts and ill-informed judgements of the playground or classroom can stifle cries for help. Meanwhile, the largely unmoderated world of social media offers dangers and benefits in equal measure.
Understanding these issues, in both the physical and virtual realms, requires heightened awareness from health and care professionals, informed by those they are tasked to help. This is why we have worked with MindEd to develop a resource, which includes information pages on topics such as e-safety, self-esteem, building personal skills and the impact of the digital world on identity. Information is also provided about specific digital risks such as cyberbullying, pornography and radicalisation.
MindEd offers free educational resources on children and young people’s mental health for all adults, funded in part by government and led by our sector partner, the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health. The intent is to help protect young people’s safety online and to keep professionals properly informed. The more knowledgeable they can be – and be perceived to be – the more trusted the advice. Credible, professional voices provide young people with the confidence they need to manage their ‘digital lives’ and make responsible decisions about what they should – and shouldn’t – do online.
Whether it’s developing policy, legislation or training, best results are always achieved by involving the people for whom the benefit is intended. And so it was in this case. Development of MindEd’s online resource was driven by feedback from young people, who were clear in their belief that health professionals needed a better understanding of online risks and resilience factors. Whilst it is not always possible to change children’s circumstances, a better understanding of their experiences is often the most effective way to support them.
Understanding personal experience lies at the heart of the recent Time to Talk Day, which took place on 4 February – a ‘day of action’ from Time to Change. Part funded by the Department of Health, Time to Change is the campaigning arm of leading mental health charities Rethink Mental Illness and Mind. One of their primary aims is to remind us all that a problem kept hidden can mean a lifetime compromised – or even cut short.
Recently, I was privileged to meet youth mental health campaigner Zephyr Jussa. Zephyr has experienced many of the issues described above, but was able to find the courage – when battling depression in his teens – to open up about his mental health problems. He sought and received the help he needed and has since gone on to make a difference to others by speaking publically about his experiences. He is a brave young man.
The consequences of not reaching out for support are thrown into even sharper relief by Place2Be’s Children’s Mental Health Week. This year’s theme is all about ‘building resilience’ and teaching children to ‘bounce forward’ from life’s challenges. It’s also about seeking the help and support they need, when they need it. As with many such initiatives, the week’s activities – led by the Duchess of Cambridge – has been a joint effort and includes MindEd on the roster of supporters.
More broadly, as was our stated intent in last year’s Future in mind report, initiatives like Time to Talk and Children’s Mental Health Week are helping us all continue the national conversation about children and young people’s mental health. Along with their parents and carers, they deserve the quality of mental health services and ready access to information to make their own decisions about the support and treatment they need.
In tandem with our work on suicide prevention there is much to be positive about in our national pursuit of better mental health. These are firm foundations on which to build better services for future generations – but whatever happens, the most important thing we must all do is keep talking.