25th Apr, 18
Supporting a Young Person with a Mental Health Problem: Information for Practitioners
Children and young people’s mental health is currently a hot topic in the media and you will have heard it being talked about much more recently. However, sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between normal adolescent behaviour and the development of a mental health problem.
This blog aims to offer advice and guidance for practitioners who are concerned about a child or young person’s mental health. After reading this information you will hopefully feel more confident and better equipped to assist a young person to seek help for any mental health issues they may be experiencing.
There are several reported barriers to children and young people receiving mental health support, and a recent report by Young Minds (2018) found only 9% of young people reported finding it easy to access the support they needed. This is unacceptable and it is therefore essential to provide young people with the resources and tools to allow them to at least try to help themselves.
Important Things to Remember
Everyone has mental health, just like we all have physical health. However just like adults do, at times children and young people can struggle to cope and may experience a range of mental health problems.
What is important to remember is that a mental health problem differs to a mental health diagnosis: a mental health diagnosis is a lot more persistent and severe than a mental health problem. This blog focuses primarily on mental health problems as those who have received a diagnosis (as well as some young people experiencing mental health problems) will need to be accessing specialist mental health support.
Children and young people’s mental health problems, as well as the number of young people receiving a mental health diagnosis, are a lot more common than you think. 1 in 10 are found to suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition: that’s equivalent to 3 in every classroom. Recent research by Young Minds suggests that mental health difficulties in young people are on the rise, but the reasons for this increase are varied.
Young people these days face increased pressures and growing up is not the same as when I was younger: with more academic pressures and pressures to look and act a certain way (an obvious link being with the use of social media). An increase in bullying, and the number of children living in poverty have also been found to contribute to the rise in children and young people’s mental health problems.
With the right help and support most young people will recover from their mental health difficulty. They have a much better chance of recovery if their problems are identified early, which is why it is important for practitioners to be familiar with common signs and symptoms which may suggest that a young person is suffering.
It is helpful to encourage a child or young person to see their mental health problem as just a difficult period in their life from which they can get better. Some children even manage to overcome their mental health problem with little help and guidance and without receiving any therapeutic support. It is important not to dismiss or play down a child’s mental health problem as this may make them think you don’t care or that you see their problems as insignificant.
It can be difficult working with a child or young person who is experiencing a mental health problem. It is therefore essential to look after your own mental health and wellbeing. You cannot be there to help and support a child or young person if you are not feeling well yourself.
Having the Conversations
Asking a child or young person how they feel can be difficult, but it is important to do. If they are adamant they do not want to talk, don’t push them; they will talk when they are ready, but it is important they know that you are there for them.
Although different mental health problems have differing signs and symptoms, there are some common characteristics you can look for in a young person which may suggest they are struggling. Examples include changes in appetite, sleeping patterns, personality, mood, behaviour, unexplained physical symptoms, performance at school, withdrawal, avoidance of situations, lack of self-care or exhibiting self-harming behavivour. If you notice any changes in a child or young person over the course of a couple weeks, it is important to have a conversation with them to try to find out how they are feeling.
Before having any conversations think about what you want to say and ask open questions which will allow the child or young person to explain. Be calm and supportive and listen non-judgementally to what they tell you, providing reassurance where necessary.
Although you need to ensure that you respect the young person’s privacy, it is vital you make it clear that not all information may be able to be kept confidential. Explain to a young person that any information which puts them or others at risk will need to be passed on to relevant parties.
If a child or young person struggles to talk about how they feel, or has communication difficulties, encourage them to write things down, draw how they feel or use music. It is important for them to try and find a way to express themselves which is helpful for them.
How You Can Help
Understanding common mental health problems and the associated symptoms will help you to understand how a child or young person may be feeling. Try to talk about mental health more, ask questions and encourage a young person to seek further help if you notice they are struggling.
Lots of websites and resources are available so, if possible, it is useful to encourage a young person to access these sources of support and try to help themselves. Finding out as much information as possible will help young people to understand their problems and answer any questions they may have. It will also allow for the development of practical strategies to help a child or young person overcome their difficulties. In addition, linking a young person to self-help information which they can read and use at their own pace will allow them some privacy and the opportunity to do this in their own time.
It is important to encourage a child or young person to look after themselves by eating healthily, getting enough exercise and sleeping well. How they feel physically will have a significant impact on their emotional health. Many young people experience difficulties with their sleep, which greatly affects their mood and ability to concentrate and learn in school. Suggest to young people that they write down their thoughts or worries (especially before bed if they cannot sleep), as this will help them to take a step back from their thoughts and view them more objectively.
Do not just focus on a child’s mental health problem but concentrate on their qualities and what they do well, inspiring the child and their family to do the same. Praise them and encourage them to try out new activities to help to build their confidence and increase the social interaction they have with their peers. Young people need to get into the habit of reflecting at the end of each day on what’s gone well for them that day, rather than focusing on all the ‘bad’ things which have happened.
It is essential to ask a young person what they think will help them - often they will have ideas that you are unaware of and it is important for them to feel involved in their care. Also, try to include the family wherever possible as they may be able to help you in supporting a child or young person. Parents and carers often need support themselves as it can be very difficult caring for a child or young person with a mental health problem.
Getting Further Help
If a child or young person is struggling with their mental health, it is wise to let their school know so please encourage parents and carers to do this. Many schools offer school-based counselling and other means of supporting young people’s emotional needs, so it is wise to ask the school what support is available.
If you think more specialist help is required, then you need to suggest a parent or carer takes their child to their GP. Their doctor will then be able to make a referral to Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS) if deemed necessary. Some schools can refer directly into CYPMHS, which is a further reason why it is important to keep the child’s school informed.
If you think more urgent care is needed, or that the child or young person is at risk of harming themselves, then it is important to take them straight to A&E.
Remember that children and young people’s mental health is just as important as their physical health. In fact, physical and mental health interact greatly and have an impact on each other in numerous ways. Just like with physical illnesses recovery can often be a lengthy process and will not occur overnight. It is therefore important to be aware of mental health problems and any sources of support available to enable you to sign-post young people to if you are concerned about them. Many websites, apps and self-help resources are available which help to support children and young people experiencing mental health problems. Nevertheless, it is important to look at reputable websites such as those listed below or in the ‘Mental Health Support Directory’:
Although it is hoped this guidance will offer you advice and information, it is not a definitive guide and if you are concerned about a child or young person you should seek specialist advice.