I am regularly talking to a widening circle of people about the importance of instilling positive mental health habits in children from a young age. So many later mental health problems, self-harm or suicide attempts are linked to the inability to cope with overwhelming emotions. It is estimated that as many as 10% of all children are suffering with a diagnosable mental health condition at any time, that's 3 in every classroom.
I want to share with you a very simple truth - some of these could have been avoided with some very basic techniques being taught from childhood.
I hear from so many people that mental health support is complicated, that as a teacher how do I know what I am talking about, that I'm a behaviour expert - what does that have to do with mental health and sadly from others that aren't I scared talking about mental health.
And the simple answer is low-level mental health support and good mental wellbeing is not complicated, it consists of just 4 things:
1. Recognising your emotions
2. Knowing how to deal with emotions
3. Healthy mental habits
4. Support networks
Number 1 is easy to explain, but hard to do.
Number 2 stumps people when I talk to them.
Number 3 makes people say "like what?"
Number 4 makes people list people they don't talk to about their mental wellbeing, but should.
The way to change these responses is by teaching them from childhood, let's go through each in turn:
- Emotions start in the body, the hormone system in the blood stream responds quicker than the brain to things like threat, danger and other emotions. This relates to the times when if we were going to run away from the sabre-toothed tiger, our brain needed our body to be ready to react when it told the body to run away. Children need to be taught how their body feels for each emotion, that way their brain is prepared for the emotion when they recognise the feeling in their body.
- There are five unsafe ways of dealing with negative emotions and three safe ways, children need to know that reflecting on emotions, talking about the emotion or learning to let it go are the best ways of dealing with emotions. When it comes to letting emotions go, then they can use things like physical activity, breathing exercises, meditation, dance, music, hugs, or repetitive activities. Talking about emotions in the third person can help as well to stop someone getting caught up in the emotion again.
- Positive healthy mental health habits are all around us, but not actually regularly practised by many. One I talk often about (and have written books about) is the practise of Gratitude, spending time daily or every few days, focussing on the things that we appreciate in our lives. It really has a profound impact on a person's ability to cope with negative events in their lives and completely reframes them. Regular physical exercise, mindfulness, meditation, hobbies, spending time with friends are all other ways of helping to ensure that the horrible monster of emotional overwhelm doesn't creep up on our children.
- One of the biggest psychological support factors following any incident where there has been a threat to the life (themselves or others) is peer or community support. Following the London bombings in 2005 for example, one study found that less than 1% of respondents sought professional help, whereas a massive 71% sought support from their own networks! So many mental health problems are caused by an inability to communicate what emotions, feelings and thoughts are going on inside people's heads. By helping children to talk about it at a young age, throughout adolescence and into adulthood, imagine the positive impact on self-harm and suicide attempt statistics. Make it safe to talk about your emotions, so that when they need to talk children are not having to decide if it's alright to speak about them, but instead that they trust you to help them.
So, to return to where I started, good effective low level mental health practice is not complex, provided you start from the beginning. It's only when you try to turn things around later on that it becomes complex. So whether you are a parent, work with children or support teenagers, I urge you to think simple!