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Paintbrushes at the Ready Children... It's "Time to Talk"

17/02/2016 08:58 | Updated 17 February 2016
  • Mary Rose Brady Director of Operations at the British Association of Art Therapists, Art Psychotherapist, Educator

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When Young Minds first brought the scale of children's mental health issues into public awareness in 2014, I enthusiastically joined in with the collective sigh of relief that echoed throughout the "caring professions" .

The headline: "One in ten children between the ages of one and 15 has a mental health disorder. Equivalent to three children in every class" provided a powerful, conceivable visual image which at once managed to capture our collective sense of shock and proved to be a call to action for government, professional bodies, charities, and schools.

We were stopped abruptly in our tracks and could no longer shy away from our shamefully poor response to the spike in diagnosed children's mental health issues. Social, emotional and behavioural issues (SEBD) were re-branded in the New Code of Practice to social emotional and mental health issues... finally, it was "time to talk"!

At last we had "named" and "outed" our shameful secret. However, I soon realised that although naming can act as powerful catalyst and driver of change, unlike the story of Rumplestiltskin, naming the problem is just the start of the process of recovery, particularly for children.

"Time to talk" appears to herald a bold, new, no nonsense approach to the UK's uneasy relationship with child mental health. Or does it? Let's take a closer look.

As an art therapist specialising in work with children and young people I am acutely aware of the fact that for far too long we have applied adult solutions to children's problems and that one size certainly does not fit all.

What about those children - the majority of children referred to us - who struggle to put their feelings into words, children with developmental delay, children with poor emotional literacy, the threatened, the bullied, children with undiagnosed trauma, children with diagnosed trauma, children for whom English is an additional language, unaccompanied minors, children of parents with mental health issues, children with learning difficulties, frightened children, children who have resorted to self harm because they do not know any other way... children in general - our children.

We know that children tend to be "doers" rather than "talkers". Art provides children with the tools for the job. Art therapists have long understood the power of the visual image in externalising and giving form to uneasy emotions or feelings. Without exception the children that I have treated over many years have expressed that their art expression sincerely holds their truth. To quote one child: "when you tell, people might not believe you, but when you make a drawing, it's there on the table"

This seemingly ground breaking campaign encourages us to be honest and open and so I'll be perfectly candid; having majored in children and young people's mental health for over 20 years, the headline stat was sadly no great shock to me. I am sure that I will not be alone when I say that what brought the message home so powerfully was the accompanying visual image. I know what a classroom looks like; I can see that class and I can see those three children. The power of the visual aid suddenly gave me an image to relate to; something that I could do something about.

Art therapy is a game changer in terms of changing the way something is done or thought about. The fact that in art therapy there is a tangible product ensures that children with communication, emotional or mental health difficulties can be both seen and heard, and therefore "thought about" in more helpful and empathic ways.

If it is finally truly "time to talk" then surely the corollary is that it's also "time to listen"... to all of the ways in which children communicate. Surely it then follows that it is also "time to get creative" with children's mental health commissioning and include art therapy?

Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com

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