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We Need to Open Up the Discussion About Mental Health With Young People

01/04/2016 09:52 am 09:52:00

Over the past decade, there has been a definite shift in the way we understand and talk about mental health; we're beginning to be more open, more accepting and more committed to tackling mental health issues. High profile campaigns from charities such as Mind and Time To Change, as well as celebrities and well-known public figures speaking openly about their own struggles have played a huge role in making this possible and, whilst there is undoubtedly still a long way to go, it feels like we're finally getting somewhere.

However, it seems that mental health among teenagers and children is struggling to lose its taboo status. One in ten children experience mental health issues between the ages of five and 16 - around three in every class - and a quarter of young people (26%) have said that the stigma attached to their mental illness has made them want to give up on life. This is no small issue.

Young people face intense pressures at school and in their everyday lives. Family breakdown, focus on exams and social media can leave teenagers in an almost constant state of stress and anxiety which, if left unaddressed, can develop into much bigger problems. Teenagers are already struggling with a minor tsunami of emotions because of the sudden growth spurt in the brain: teen brain growth is in itself a trauma. This makes them particularly vulnerable to additional emotional trauma of any kind.

Social media is a very real source of stress, anxiety and trauma with its incessant pressure on acceptance and rejection. 'Likes', 'shares', 'friending' and so on leave teenagers (and others!) in an almost constant state of stress and anxiety. Neurobiologists have shown that a Facebook 'unfriend' registers in the brain in exactly the same way as a physical injury. This doesn't mean 'switch off' - but it does mean this source of trauma must be acknowledged.

Teens need to understand that it's okay to have this huge mess of emotions, and they must be shown ways to deal with it: being equipped with proper tools will help prevent trauma leaving its mark and becoming anxiety or worse.

One method which is beginning to gather pace among teenagers and schools, of which I am a passionate advocate, is the use of mindfulness. Among other benefits, mindfulness can have a hugely positive effect on a child/teenager's emotional stability. A significant amount of a mindfulness programme will be devoted to awareness of emotions: how they arise, and in what forms - and, importantly, their interaction with thoughts to produce behaviours. The lesson is that emotions are neither good nor bad, they simply are: but when they take over, they can cause unwanted results. So, it is important to be aware of emotions, and how they may grow and compel behaviour.

A child with an awareness of what is going on with their emotions, helpful and unhelpful, develops an ability to accept and embrace emotions, and not to allow them to grow to overwhelm. A mindfulness programme instils the fact that everyone -- other kids, teachers, parents -- has exactly the same abilities to think and to feel and react. In the same way as you feel grumpy, angry, irritable, or happy, the lesson goes, so does everyone else. The programme develops compassion in its truest sense: understanding and forgiving of both self and others. Again, interpersonal relationships can become more considered and deliberate.

Dr Dan Seigal of UCLA writes about the child mind in a series of wonderful books, and describes how parents may best understand and then engage. His prescription is a wonderfully coherent combination of development of awareness on the part of both the child and the adult. Help can only come from understanding. Parents, carers, and teachers must approach from a position of knowledge, gained from people such as Dr Seigal -- only then will help be useful.

There are programs now available for children and teenagers which are hugely accessible. Daily use of a program that helps the child to understand and deal with the changes they are experiencing can help the child realise that what they are experiencing is normal. If mental health is addressed from an early age then any sufferers can develop and become the best versions of them before a problem is allowed to really take stock and have a damaging and potentially long-lasting effect. Children are the future, let's allow them to flourish.

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