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  • Writer's pictureRachel Swanick

Mind the Gap: Challenging Attitudes to Children's Mental Health

In the past two weeks, my children and myself have all taken separate mental days from school and work. Between us (and including my husband) we have had changes of school, a new job, a trillion after school clubs and parties, health and financial worries – alongside the growing worries in the world and a mortgage application (don’t get me started on that one!). All of this has happened since September. And I know we are not alone. Lots of families and people are facing huge struggles. It is like the world needs to stop so that we can take a collective breath to recover.

But back to mental health days because there was difference between my children and me. When I realised that I was running on empty, I contacted my manager and I was supported to rest. When the children needed support, we had to call school on the day and I had to lie, using a physical illness symptom as an excuse for my children to rest. So, what are we teaching our children by giving this message – that their mental health is not as important as adults? That they cannot admit when they need to rest and are feeling overwhelmed?

Linked to this, is the availability of mental health services, certainly in my local area. Adults who are struggling with emotional issues can be assessed by a community mental health team with two weeks of self-referral. Once they have been assessed, adults can access online support before being referred for telephone or in person help (usually six weeks). However, when a child is struggling, sure they can get an ‘on the day’ GP appointment but then they are left at least six months for CAMHS assessments. And then if – only IF – you meet the criteria, you are put on another waiting list for another few months before receiving eight weeks specialist support. This does not include if you need a neuro assessment or an EHCP. The wait for these can turn in to years, all adding to layers of detrimental development for the child. An adult will be offered anti-depressants whilst they wait for service and usually in the first GP appointment. Children will have to rely on their poor, burnt-out parents for support for a year. I’ll ask you again, what message are we giving our beautiful, precious children?

When I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, mental health was not discussed. It was hidden or derided as a weakness. And it was like that for hundreds of years before – asylums hidden from the community, for example – so that ‘well’ people did not have to face the awfulness of the vulnerable. In recent years, this attitude has changed. To use the asylum example again, mental health hospitals are often placed within the community now and people are invited in to be part of the activities and events. Employers, educators and social media has sought to break the barriers of stigma surrounding mental health to create acceptance and openness for those suffering with anxiety, depression, personality disorders and sadness. I feel lucky that I am therapist working with therapists as there is always someone to listen. This isn’t the case for everyone. How many thousands of people in the UK are forcing themselves to go to work, to cover shifts, to pretend everything is OK when really it isn’t? My husband (not able to take a wellbeing day, or maybe not in the environment where you would ask) works in family and children’s law. He doesn’t have monthly clinical supervision or peer support groups like I do as a therapist, even though we are both working with deep trauma. I wonder how many social workers or NHS staff are truly receiving the emotional support they need to thrive in work….

Last week, I ran some workshops for the Adoption UK conference on building resilience in adoptive parents, i.e., putting on your oxygen mask first. Parents were grateful for the space to think about their needs, as if they needed someone to force them to take a breath, sit, nourish and appreciate. During the workshops, there was so much emotional heaviness in the room and parents found it hard to think about their own needs and strengths – perhaps feeling guilty for not constantly thinking about their child. Some parents talked about feeling teary, headachy, tired before the session and then feeling calm, empowered, “entirely present” afterwards. Having one whole (or short) hour to reflect and recharge was enough for people to change the energy of their day. Imagine if we embedded this level of self-wellbeing in to everyday – we would be invincible!

Which brings me back to our children. Many schools have a positive focus on wellbeing and raising self-esteem throughout the curriculum – and this is a new and wonderful thing. However, the focus is often on children cooperating and calming emotions, not expressing those difficult feelings, and saying how they feel. When we think about adults we admire, I am sure it will not be those who cooperated and didn’t say how they felt… It will be the ones who stood up for something they believed in, so why are we not helping our children to do that?

I have often wondered about the effects of repressing difficult emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety. In my work, I have seen many children who are self-harming, struggling with identity and masking their emotions. The thing with emotions is that they have a habit of showing up whether we like it or not and they will show up in negative ways, like self-harm or masking, if we don’t help children acknowledge and regulate them. And when children are in the depths of these struggles, I often think about the parents who are trying their best to help whilst being worried sick about their child. They will know they have a long fight ahead for services and support for the child and so a circle of stress begins.

I always like to offer advice and tips for what we can do in these situations but here, it is a bigger issue for society and our communities. It is not an easy fix. Children learn by us, and we can create a place where mental health is thought about at home. We can start with our own homes and families. We can model how we rest when we feel tired instead of keeping going, we can talk about feeling sad and low and how we are going to manage that for our children. We can show children that work, and activity is not everything – try not to answer work calls or emails after hours, let children stay home from activities if they have had a big day, appreciate that we all get tired and sometimes we need a blanket to soothe our souls. We can talk to school about our children staying home because they need to (always balance and appropriateness!) and encourage our schools to offer a place for those children with energy bouncing around them, not just the calm and cooperative ones.

One a bigger scale, we can create spaces for mental health to be talked about in the community. At fairs, or in community centres or through fundraising (when was the last time you saw a mental health charity fundraiser in your community?!), at Church, in the supermarket, we can help take away the stigma of mental ill health and make it part of conversations.

Every interaction is a chance for positive change – so what can you do for one person (including yourself) that will make tomorrow a brighter day?

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