It’s 5am on a Sunday morning and I’m wide awake reflecting on the working week, planning next week and having a whole load of other random facts running through my mind. The traits of many a busy person and no doubt, many a woman of a certain age too! One particular thing plays on my mind which is one of my 16 year old students who has recently started at college. He tried to describe to me why the college he attends had asked them to wear yellow. I realised he was talking about Mental Health Awareness Day.
After some discussion I realised he’d been asked to wear yellow for Mental Health Awareness Day. My first thought was, great!, colleges are raising awareness of mental health difficulties for young people. I asked the student what the college had been highlighting, had the college put up posters signposting students to where they might get help? Had they offered any workshops raising awareness of what mental health is all about? Did they have any pastoral care in college which was highlighted to them and they knew where the first point of contact might be to get help? The answer to all these was “no”.
Of course this may be that the student was not aware of theses things although I’d question if he wasn’t aware, then was the message strong enough?
I explored the student’s knowledge about mental health to which he wondered, if it was something about eating food. I guessed from this he perhaps meant anorexia. Of course this can come under the mental health umbrella. I was astonished at 16 that an individual wouldn’t know what mental health was about. Not the depth of it all but something more.
One of the reasons I’m passionate about mental health awareness is, I’ve had my own experiences. On reflection, I was probably always a nervous and anxious child. I chatted with my mum about it yesterday and she asked me if at 16 I knew what mental health was about. Having lived with issues for 20 years I can’t really recall a time in adult life that I haven’t know about mental health, so I’m perhaps not the average bear when it comes to that question. However, I was totally surprised, I suppose given the amount of media information which is out there and the power of the internet, compared to the 1980s when I was a teenager. Maybe it’s also just not on some people’s radar. I suppose until you’ve had experience of mental health difficulties in your life or someone in the family, you perhaps aren’t aware?
The thing with mental health difficulties is, no matter how physically healthy you are, you never quite know when it is going to creep up and bite you. And creep up is what it does. The saying “The straw that broke the camels back” is oh so true. If you’re not aware that you’re under pressure and aware of your triggers, which frankly we don’t know until it’s happened, you don’t know how to protect yourself and start to give your self more self care. Before you know it, the straw has broken the camel’s proverbial back. So perhaps we should make young people more aware of mental health, what it is, when to notice the signs, teach that it’s ok to not feel ok, to teach that what is pressure and anxiety for one person, isn’t the same for another, teach that whatever it is that makes you feel under pressure and anxious isn’t wrong if it’s any greater or less than another person perceives it, we can all tolerate things differently. Maybe we should teach more about self care, taking time for yourself, learning to say ‘no’ when we feel under pressure to do something which makes us feel anxious or uncomfortable, even though we can’t experience why. I can’t say for sure at what age we should open up this dialogue to young people. Should it be part of PHSE and if it is already, is it enough? However, I do know that there are many young people who are diagnosed with mental health difficulties, It is not only a difficulty of teenagers and adults alone. I do know that our CAMHS system is over loaded and so is the NHS, with not enough resources to support young people and adults. Young Minds provides the statistic;
One in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a probable mental health problem in July 2020, a huge increase from one in nine in 2017. That’s five children in every classroom (i).
We know as adults, it is so hard to say ‘no’ when we feel the need to please others. After many years of reflection and therapy, I can’t find the cause of my mental health difficulties, maybe it was stress, maybe my genes mean I’m pre-disposed to it, maybe I was working to hard, maybe I wasn’t practising enough self care. All I know is, I can see lots of periods of my life when “I just didn’t feel tight and uncomfortable in my own skin”. I can’t explain why . What I do know is that I should of probably actioned those feelings earlier. It’s left me with 20 years of difficulties. They say it’s never one event that causes your mental health to come crashing down. When it does, it’s very difficult to climb back out of a dark and intangible pit.
In a Young Minds survey, three-quarters (76%) of parents said that their child’s mental health had deteriorated while waiting for support from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) (x).
We know that many of our young people with co-existing learning difference can experience mental health difficulties, secondary to dyslexia or ASD. Undiagnosed and unsupported learning difference may also lead to adults with mental health difficulties too. As adults, we should be more vigilant around these individuals, to ensure they have access to the support they need. Only this week I attend and annual review of a young person’s EHCP. I was pleased that the school wanted to add a target regarding resilience. However, when the written target started with, “X child to be more resilient“, I felt a strong need to correct the description. We cannot expect children “to be more resilient”. We cannot place the responsibility at the individuals feet, especially young people. This young person has a diagnosis of dyslexia and ASD. It can be very difficult for them to identify that what they are experiencing is anxiety. For this individual, we have now got to a point where the young person understands their emotions enough to know that the ‘meltdown’ which occurs is triggered by their anxiety. We still have a way to go yet before the young person can identify what specifically causes their anxiety and how they can identify the earlier signs to help the person take more control of the situation, read the signals and put something in place as a coping mechanism. It’s hard for us as adults to reflect and identify a ‘true’ cause of our anxiety. We might know what we feel and see what it was which tipped us over the edge but having a true understanding of our deep seated triggers is another level. Therefore, we can’t expect a young person to be naturally equipped with these skills and to learn to be resilient without support and guidance. Some children are still viewed as having ‘meltdowns’ or viewed as having ‘behavioural difficulties’, neither of which phrase I like, as it does not describe the anxiety which is the cause of the the presentation of emotions. The young person only knows/feels they are anxious or uncomfortable, which they probably even struggle to articulate this much information, without trying to understand why and what the trigger is.
The message I want to convey in this article is; ask yourself if your school or college is doing enough to teach young people what mental health is. Provide them and their parents with sufficient information of where to get help, include NHS and your local charities. Practise mindfulness, have yoga or relaxion clubs and make it feel accessible and open to all and that it’s not some silly hippy thing to attend, foster a policy of openness to talk about mental health, don’t give it a negative connotation but discuss that it’s something we all feel at times and it’s good to talk. Talk about what positive mental health is, what it is to feel good and happy, so they understand when they perhaps don’t feel happy or anxious. Say it’s it’s ok to cry. It’s ok to ask for help. Offer empathy not sympathy, allow yourself to be vulnerable and share your own experiences and feelings. People won’t open up if you’re quoting from a text book or providing theory. Open a dialogue at home and at school, make sure young people know and understand what mental health is.