Children's Mental Health Week: The Five Things Every Kid Needs

Once you understand these five psychological needs, it’s so much easier to figure out what’s missing
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

“Soaring numbers of children seeing psychiatrists amid anxiety epidemic”

“Stress and social media fuel mental health crisis”

“UK children who need mental health services face postcode lottery”

These are just some headlines that illustrate how low mental health has sunk on the agenda. The problem is, however, that while they do highlight facts, they also scaremonger. Terms like ‘crisis’, ‘epidemic’, and ‘breaking point’ are used to emphasise the issue though little is done to address the solution, leaving people with an even greater sense of dread or panic of what to do.

This is often the case when reporting shock factor subjects – pack the headline with as much punch as possible, soul-search for who is to blame, then tail-off when it comes to advice.

Yet perhaps that solution is overlooked as there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

As a kid, I always felt like I didn’t ‘fit in’, whatever fitting in means. My teens are a blur of cheap vodka, scars and feather boas, a hellish Holy Grail that gave me the identity I craved and followed me to uni. I was ‘mad dog’, ‘party girl’, ‘the fun one’, yet lonely to the bone waking up with sick in my hair, wounds that needed hospital attention, and an even thicker cloud of nothingness than before I’d started drinking.

No one had ever taught me healthy coping strategies, so I found unhealthy ones for myself...

I was often told ‘see a counsellor’, which I eventually did, though after countless attempts to find a person I remotely resonated with, I can’t say for certain it worked for me.

On the flip side, my fellow co-founder at The Self-Esteem Team – an organisation who travel the UK teaching students about mental health, body image and anxiety – Grace Barrett credits therapy with saving her life after experiencing depression so bleak she was unable to leave the house.

Similarly, I believe anti-depressants gave me the epiphany I needed to finally beat my demons, while Grace has never touched them at all.

We are just two of billions, though also an example that hunting for that one-size-fits-all formula takes the focus away from the individual. For generations, the answer was ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy), then we institutionalised people, then we got Prozac, now we have CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). I’m not saying any of these are inherently wrong, though I wonder if any of them can be right for everyone.

Neuroscientists are still trying to put their finger on what causes depression and exactly how or why it manifests. Cambridge professor Paul Fletcher says that it is not necessarily a single illness, but rather a set of different conditions. These conditions can happen naturally because of things like hormonal changes, or they happen because of different triggers, such as staying up all night, necking non-PG drinks, or your parents divorcing.

On top of this, the science world is starting to see a correlation between some forms of depression and changes to the immune system. So, depression could leave you more susceptible to getting physically sick, and being physically sick could leave you more susceptible to depression.

In short, we can never detach a mental health issue from the person and their personality, i.e. my version of ‘not quite right’ is going to be different to yours. Most mental health issues are a set of experiences and behaviours that overlap, exactly what those are will always be tricky to pin point as they can be different for everyone. Therefore, when someone says ‘what have you got depressed about’ or ‘you don’t look depressed’, they’re reading from their own rule book, not yours or your child’s.

What tends to happen then, in an attempt to silence the black dog, we cobble together coping strategies we’ve seen others employ without an understanding of why we feel the way we feel and risk making things worse...

i.e. self-harming may reduce depression but can lead to further social anxiety, or selfie addiction may increase the feeling of being more connected, though can lead to further insecurities about body image.

Martin Seager, a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, and activist, who worked in the NHS for 30+ years, believes the fundamental psychological needs every human must have to achieve maximum wellbeing are:

1) To be loved

We all express and accept love in different ways, meaning things can get lost in translation i.e. if you tell your child that you love them while answering work emails on your smartphone, or tell them you love them mid-row ‘I love you but if you fail these exams there WILL be trouble’, then love risks being given but not received. Assessing how you show love, with action not just words, can help your child know you’re a trusted, non-judgemental ear when they need one. For young children, mixed messages from fairytales yet seeing mummy and daddy argue can be confusing, so it helps to articulate that love doesn’t always come in a heart-shaped box – and sometimes jagged jigsaw pieces. Also, talking about the many faces of love means when young people become sexually active, they are less likely to interpret lust for love and use sex as a way to get a quick fix of ‘love’.

2) To belong

When I said I never felt like I fit in, I was always waiting for someone to invite me into their circle or tell me I was wanted. Yet it was only grasping that belonging can actually come from the inside not outside, that gave me the power to connect. Young people must learn that if they subcontract their worth to external things – a test grade, the number of likes on a selfie, whether others like them – they not only give that thing the power to validate them but also the power to take it away. When the power sits with the individual, they fit anywhere. Consequently, they will find like-minded friends. This is why many celebrities still stuffer from mental illness despite their wealth and power, as while they may be deemed high on the food chain, if they don’t feel they belong it is redundant.

3) To be heard

When children are upset they’re often told ‘sssh’ or ‘don’t cry’, as adults want to soothe them. Yet while the intentions are good, years later when they end up cutting themselves or not eating, parents are left pulling their hair out over why their teen is not talking. We then urge those young people to ‘talk to someone’, without any education on how to open up on things they are unable to verbalise. The last thing I wanted to do during low mood was reach out to anyone, which is why self-harm became such a crutch. Helping young people understand that communication does not always have to be verbal, and instead can be what they vent not how they vent, will help them explore ways to find their sense of self and externally release what is going on internally – whether it be through writing, music, art, volunteering, therapy, sport, drama, vlogging, or whatever gives them their voice.

4) To have meaning

Other than perhaps Olympic athletes, we are relentlessly taught how to succeed, yet never how to fail. We laud achievement, forever chasing the tangible rewards we can hang on the wall, see in the bank or post on social media. When I first did public speaking, I had to deliver six back to back talks in a school and after the first one, burst into tears in the toilets, having fluffed my lines and delivered what I perceived to be an absolute flop of a lesson convinced the other five would nosedive too. The irony is, that failure became my greatest teacher. Now, I root myself to the moment, and hold back on worrying about the success or failure of something that has not happened yet. Teaching children that it is about the journey not just the destination, not only helps them live in the moment, but also accept failure and learn from mistakes not just their success.

5) To achieve

If there’s one thing Grace and I disagree on, it’s to-do lists. I make them just so I can cross things off, and Grace has never made one. For her, she feels squished under the structure of them so that the pressure makes her lose sight of the achievement itself. We talk to young people about challenging expectations, and how they might just surprise themselves of what they’re capable of if they take their foot OFF the gas and allow themselves to roll under their own pace. It’s a marathon not a sprint, so sometimes it’s okay if the only thing they achieve that day is making a cup of tea.

Once you understand these five psychological needs, it’s so much easier to figure out what’s missing, and no longer reach for the one size that fits somebody else and instead reach for the size (or sizes) that fit you.