THE BLOG
26/11/2013 06:24 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 05:59 GMT

It's Time to Give Child Mental Health a HeadStart

My name is Harriet and on paper I'm a fairly typical person. I did fairly well at school, was a House Captain and having just got my A-level results, I've been offered a place at university. It's an exciting time but it wasn't always easy getting here and I'd like to talk about an issue that can be a bit uncomfortable - young people's mental health.

I was severely bullied when I was younger which is never easy to deal with. There have been horror stories recently showing the desperation that children can feel when taunting, especially online, goes too far. Personally, I also help to care for my younger brother who has been diagnosed with autism. I love him to bits and for me, helping to look after him is just something that a big sister should do, but it isn't always easy. I've really struggled with depression before when things have got on top of me and I could find no way out of my negative feelings.

I was lucky to go to a school that understood the importance of helping young people deal with the emotional side of their lives. In Year 12 I completed an application to become a peer mentor. I was then approached by my teacher to become one of these mentors as part of my school's in-depth support network. Because I had experience of being bullied and difficult life situations, I wanted to stop it happening to others and I felt like it gave me a purpose. I suppose it could sound selfish, to want to help people because it made me feel good but I loved it and after doing my training, the year just flew by and so I decided to fit it in with my A-levels and carry on into Year 13 with a small selection of the pupils I'd helped the year before.

By this point, through the counselling sessions and the workshops, I had become the only person some pupils would talk to. Teachers are always willing to help but sometimes they can seem a bit daunting, especially for an 11-year-old who has just arrived at a big new school and so peer counsellors can seem a bit more approachable.

My work generally involved helping run workshops and sitting in on one-to-one counselling sessions for pupils who had either been referred by a teacher or who just wanted to drop in and chat. I was really surprised at the range of issues and problems that can affect younger children. There were things like bullying, break ups and parents splitting up that you might expect but also things that could seem unimportant, such as not having the latest clothes that were in fashion or the right hair colour, but had reduced some children to tears. I quickly learnt that it's not for other people to judge what counts as a worry or anxiety, if it's clearly a problem, we need to help find a way through it.

This can often be a case of just listening and giving children the chance to get their worries off their shoulders. Unfortunately it can sometimes be more serious and I have found myself having to talk one of the younger girls I was mentoring away from suicidal thoughts and eventually convinced her to accept the help she was being offered. During later stages of her recovery I encouraged her to join the Re:think youth panel with me, to put her negative experiences and feelings into good use. I like to think that having a project like ours available made an important difference to how things turned out for a lot of pupils in my school.

My experience has made me realise that I want to help people full time. I have a place at university to study nursing, but wherever this ends up leading me personally, I know that there needs to be a lot more help for children dealing with life's problems. At the moment there seems to be this idea that mental health problems mean crazy people in straight-jackets locked up in a cell but that's just the extreme and for most children it's nothing like that. More often than not it's an every-day issue that just snowballs out of control but feelings can be bottled up and lead to something much more serious.

I was lucky that my school was so interested in promoting healthy attitudes towards mental health and doing its best to support pupils going through an ordeal, but there definitely needs to be more help available and this is why I'm supporting the Big Lottery Fund's HeadStart programme. I know first-hand how important it is to have someone to turn to and the difference it could make to young people in the long run is well worth the effort.