Priory child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, who is based at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford, says:
One in eight children in England is living with a mental health disorder says new NHS research. One in eighteen pre-school children now has at least one mental health condition, according to the report by NHS Digital which has collected data for very young children and older teens for the first time.
It also shows a quarter of 11 to 16 year olds with a mental health disorder had self-harmed or attempted suicide, which compares to 3 per cent who do not have a diagnosed condition. Among teens aged 17 to 19 with a disorder, that figure is as high as 46.8 per cent.
I have just written a free guide to parents on teenage depression.
Life stressors are increasing for young people as a result of high expectations in education and constant internet access. As a society we need to focus more on helping young people become resilient, to understand their feelings, develop healthy coping strategies and help others in need, and then see how rewarding this is, and that needing help is not something that should be stigmatised. Young people may then ask for help when needed.
Early intervention is currently lacking. NHS mental health services do lack resources. Unfortunately, young people often are not seen until very unwell and too often they are seen by fairly junior staff as a first port of call. This can impact on whether they enter the correct treatment at that point – and often there is further waiting time for the treatment that has been identified. When I see young people at an early stage of their mental health issues, I can then treat them swiftly and as I result, can often have them better within three months, with a good relapse prevention plan in place so they remain well. If a similar service was available to all young people, targeting the early issues, I am sure there would be a gradual reduction in these figures.
Parents frequently tell me they want to help their children but don’t always know how or what is best, and that is understandable. Every child and situation is different. Those of us who work on the frontline in mental health, talking to teenagers and their families, can however offer some practical help – both with helping parents identify and understand their teenagers, and helping teenagers cope in a healthier ways.
My top tips for parents:
- If children have intense emotions and turn to self-harming. Tell your child to hold some ice really tightly (it feels like it is burning but will not do damage). As the ice melts they might feel their tension melt away.
- Use a traffic light system with your child so you know when their anxiety might turn to physical harm against themselves or others. Ask them if they would apply a red, amber or a green light to their problem, with red being the most acute. When they are calmer, ask them how they would like you to react depending on ‘which colour they feel they are’. Knowing you will react in a way your child agrees with means your child is more likely to share his or her feelings and risks with you. At the red level, school and experts’ involvement may be necessary.
- Remind your child it’s normal to experience strong emotions such as sadness, anger, fright and anxiety, but these don’t last, and you can do things to help them such as watching funny YouTube clips, talking things through, taking exercise together.
- Young people often ‘catastrophise’; they believe they will fail in life spectacularly. Help them look at the true evidence regarding their hard work and their individual skills and qualities, so they can challenge irrational thinking with evidence.
- Help children ‘problem solve’ and form a plan so that even if their immediate hopes are not fulfilled, there are options and a future.
- Remind your child you love them unconditionally.
- Encourage them to talk to you about how they are feeling and explain you have felt like that too in times of stress.
- Let your child know they can always contact a supportive charity such as ChildLine or the Samaritans anonymously by telephone or via a web chat if they need a confidential discussion.
- Encourage them to exercise vigorously for 20 minutes each day; it will help improve mood and sleep patterns.
- If your child is suffering intense stress, distract and divert. There are things you as a parent can do to help their emotions change quickly
- Watch a scary film together, read a funny book, watch humorous clips on the internet, look at old photos of yourself, or them, as a baby
- Encourage your child to ‘stop their thought train and get off it’. Encourage them to build a brick wall, metaphorically, between themselves and their stressful thoughts.
- Urge them not to think about their exam or test worries except for short periods, say 10 minutes morning and night. (This is not suggesting they don’t revise, but that they block out the worry.)
- Get your child to think of a relaxing memory as a safe place to go to in their head. Ask them to describe it to you in detail, including the sounds, smells, lights, textures, the conversations, the emotions they remember. This can help them relax and distract them from their worries, and, with practice, they can take themselves back there in their head at times of stress.
- If the anxiety does not seem to improve, and anxiety feels outside the normal range in severity, or length, get help via your GP. Your doctor can refer your child to a psychiatrist and having brief therapeutic intervention can make a significant difference in a short period. Many of Priory’s Wellbeing Centres offer Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, with fast access to mental health experts.