Good mental health and wellbeing are important at all stages of life. But mental health in young people is becoming a global concern, and anyone that works with and has a safeguarding responsibility for young people must make it their priority too.
Here are some UK statistics to consider:
Not only do these figures show the prevalence of mental health conditions amongst young people, but they also indicate that these conditions can lead to continued problems in adulthood if they are not properly addressed. We need to start nourishing good mental health from a young age, ensuring that we all have the resilience to cope with whatever life has in store.
Treating mental health conditions and promoting positive mental health to young people is very important, as it helps them to become mentally resilient and learn how best to manage their own mental health. When you learn these things as a young person, your ability as an adult to deal with poor mental health will be much better than if you simply struggled without support as a child.
So, what can we, as safeguarding professionals, do to support our young people?
Some of the most common mental health disorders in children and young people include depression, anxiety and self-harm. Each of these conditions has its own signs and symptoms, which you can learn more about from this comprehensive list produced by Young Minds.
It’s believed that dealing with a big change or traumatic life event can be a significant factor or trigger for mental health issues in children. School and social media are also often talked about, but there are other factors as well:
As someone with a safeguarding responsibility, understanding the factors that can impact children’s wellbeing and mental health is a key part of helping to identify problems early and arrange for appropriate intervention or mental health support for children. If you’re aware of risk factors then you will be able to monitor children that are going through any of the things we’ve mentioned above, as well as be able to better understand what might have contributed to a young person’s mental state.
The children’s wellbeing organisation Action for Children suggests a helpful mnemonic – MASK – that could help you detect any changes in your child that might indicate mental health difficulties.
M – Mood
Has there been a significant change in the child’s mood, such as irritability or aggression? Have they become withdrawn? Are they behaving differently than usual?
A – Actions
Are there any changes in the child’s eating habits or are they showing difficulty sleeping? Are there signs of bullying, alcohol/drug use, or self-harming?
S – Social
Does the child appear to be bored, lonely, or withdrawn? Are they starting to get into trouble, missing school or losing interest in their friends and other things they liked to do?
K – Keep Talking
Though they may be reluctant to talk about how they’re feeling, or even refuse to, you should try and talk to the child and let them know there is someone there who cares. Continue listening and asking how they feel, or suggest that they talk to another adult that they feel more comfortable with.
In some cases, mental health problems can be caused by a child or young person’s environment. If you’re worried about someone, consider the following things.
Having a healthy sense of self can also contribute to mental health in children. Again, consider these questions:
These questions can help you determine whether an external or personal factor may be contributing to the state of a child’s mental health.
If you come across a child that you believe may be struggling with mental health issues, there are a range of things you can do in your position as a safeguarding professional.
First of all, you should speak to your designated safeguarding lead if you think that the child or young person may be at risk of harming themselves or other people. This is particularly important if you suspect suicidal intentions or if a child has told you that they are thinking about suicide.
You should also speak to your designated safeguarding lead immediately if you think a child or young person’s mental health and wellbeing are being affected by some kind of abuse. This could be coming from their parents, family members or from other young people they interact with.
If you’re concerned that a child or young person is acting differently or more withdrawn, but there isn’t any indication that they are at risk of immediate or serious harm, here are some of the best ways you can offer support.
One of the key strategies to support a child with mental health concerns is simply to talk. This doesn’t have to be directly about mental health; you can ask how their day is going or how they are and allow them to share how they are feeling.
You might want to mention that you’ve noticed their change in behaviour and offer support if they want it. Sometimes, having someone else acknowledge a struggle with mental health can be a very helpful first step for people in realising that they need support or help.
Young people, especially teenagers, often go through a lot of intense emotions as they grow up, and may not want to share these. Your offer to talk may be rejected, but you should still let them know that the choice is there if they want it.
If you work with and are involved in the education of children one of the key ways to provide mental health support for young people is to help them build emotional resilience and develop better emotional insight. This is useful as it helps them to manage minor mental health struggles on their own and can reduce the impact that poor mental health has on other aspects of their life.
Try and help children and young people to understand how their feelings, thoughts and actions can affect each other. The easier they find it to be able to identify emotions and figure out what has caused them, the easier it gets to deal with these and self-regulate.
Emotional resilience is another important part of providing mental health help for children. This involves learning the best ways to cope with stressful, upsetting or unexpected situations by training your brain to remain positive and look for solutions, along with knowing the best ways to take care of yourself if you’re feeling mentally drained or upset.
Many children with mental health disorders may need more structured intervention and treatment for their condition, especially in severe cases. But by supporting the young people you work with to develop greater emotional insight and resilience, you can boost their mental wellbeing and give them the tools to better cope when they’re feeling unhappy, anxious or stressed.
If you feel that a child or young person may be struggling with a serious mental health condition, professional help and support from someone like a GP, educational psychologist, school nurse, therapist or counsellor. Most schools, clubs and organisations that work with children have established procedures that are followed if a child needs referring to a mental health professional.
Again, speaking to your designated safeguarding lead is the best place to start if you think someone needs the support of professional child and adolescent mental health services.
Mental health is such a complex and important area in safeguarding. All the safeguarding topics that are currently (and rightly) under the microscope – child sexual exploitation, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, child abuse and so on – will all have an impact on children and young people’s mental health.
But information specifically about mental and emotional health in children, the associated disorders and other factors that can have an impact – body image, social media, relationships, anxiety, low self-esteem – aren’t covered by training to the same extent – or not yet anyway.
Teachers, volunteers and carers are all well-placed to observe young people day-to-day. Therefore, it is important that they receive training so that they can recognise signs that might suggest that a young person is suffering from a mental health problem or might be at risk of developing one.
One of the best ways that safeguarding professionals can do this is through training, which allows them to learn what to look out for, the best ways of working with children with mental health issues, and the importance of promoting positive mental health in children. Many schools and other organisations that work with children have already started integrating this into their mandatory training, as well as talking about topics like mental health with students and young people.
Lots of schools also already have resources and lessons in place to help build emotional resilience, and there is a big movement to start teaching other topics, such as online safety and relationships, to ensure they are better informed and more aware of the potential risks out there. It is important that this knowledge sharing continues and that we include topics specifically around mental health, so children and young people are well placed to better understand themselves and their emotional and mental health.
Parental mental health problems can have an impact on child development, as this may make life at home more difficult and prevent a child from developing a securely attached relationship with their parent.
It’s not always the case, but living with a parent with a mental health problem may create a home environment that is stressful and unstable, emotionally impacting a child and exposing them to difficult or upsetting situations. In some scenarios, a parent with a mental health issue may act abusively toward the child or end up neglecting them, both of which can have a developmental impact.
Having a parent with a mental health condition may also lead to a strained or problematic relationship, which may deprive a child of a positive role model or loving caregiver as they grow up. This can impact their own future relationships and cause behavioural problems that can be hard to treat.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, an average of 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health issue in any given year. Many children and young people do not talk about their mental health however, so this number is likely higher.
Mental health has an impact on child development because it can influence the way that young people learn to perceive and react to the world and other people around them. Children with poor mental health are much more likely to suffer from mental health issues as adults, along with lacking the kind of mental strength and stability needed to respond to things like stress and trauma in a resilient way.
The mental health of children and young people in Great Britain has never been worse, and it will continue to suffer if we don’t make systematic changes to the way that we treat and respond to these kinds of conditions. If you’re in a safeguarding role with young people, it is your responsibility to spot signs of poor mental health and take the appropriate action to support young people that are struggling, which mental health training can help you to learn.
If you’re looking for training that covers topics such as mental health problems in young people, we offer a range of online safeguarding courses on this topic.