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Being the Change You Want to See - Growing Together for Children's Mental Health Week

‘Growing Together’ is the theme of this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week, which is taking place between the 7th and 13th of February 2022. It was launched in 2015 by Place2Be, a children’s mental health charity aiming to highlight the importance of young people’s mental health. This year, Place2Be are encouraging both young people and adults to consider how they have grown emotionally and ways that they can help others to grow.

As a researcher currently studying young people’s mental health, I see the real-world impact these mental health discussions can have, and so, in this blog, I will explore how encouraging mental health discourse amongst young people can help us grow and collectively improve the mental health landscape.

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Our social and emotional development as children, being able to recognise, manage and communicate our feelings, helps us build our self-confidence, empathy, and our ability to form meaningful relationships as we enter young adulthood. Considering the last couple of years and how difficult they have been for all of us, the theme of ‘Growing Together’ is incredibly fitting and one that I am very excited about.

During our younger years, we go through a tremendous amount of growth. We grow as individuals, begin to carve out our personalities, and figure out who we are. We grapple with how we see ourselves, who we choose to befriend and how we traverse the world as it becomes so much bigger and so much more complicated. We face new challenges and gain new, potentially life-changing, experiences, which shape our perspectives, influence our decisions, and help us overcome unfamiliar obstacles. It is a rollercoaster period of our lives and one where our relationship with and how we manage our mental health is absolutely critical.

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Young People and Mental Health

As of January 2022, we know that at least 1 in 6 children and young people in the UK have a diagnosable mental health condition. We also know that over half of all mental health disorders actually start before the age of 14, and that 75% start by the age of 24. Young people face so many challenges and adversities which can impact their mental health, such as bullying, bereavement, body image, worrying about their future, managing their relationship with social media, and the list goes on.

I’m a research assistant on the eBRAIN Study at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience; eBRAIN is a study of brain development and mental health among young people in London. A massive part of my role is speaking to young people (aged 11–17) about their life experiences and their emotional health, hearing their perspectives, getting to know them better and finding out about their personalities and interests — this is by far my favourite aspect of my job.

As researchers on the eBRAIN study, we have the awesome opportunity to visit different secondary schools across London and hold workshops and presentations on mental health, stress, and anxiety. The young people we meet have undoubtedly demonstrated the huge strides we have made as a society and how far the discussion around mental health has come. Their mental health literacy and understanding is far more advanced than I remember it being when I was in secondary school in east London, around a decade ago. Mental health literacy can be defined as ‘knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders which aid their recognition, management and prevention’.

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The approach to mental health now is wildly different and has clearly improved a lot over the years. In my experience, we didn’t have any discussions whatsoever around mental health at school, during my adolescence, and there was so much stigma surrounding it. Our knowledge, awareness and understanding of mental health during that time was very limited, if not non-existent. Hearing how contrastingly positive and open the mental health discourse is amongst children and young people today is reassuring, to say the least.

However, there is still a long journey ahead of us in terms of reducing the stigma, improving the understanding and general discourse around mental health, as well as bringing visibility to the support options available and how to seek help in the first place. The more informed we are, the more we are able to speak up and normalise reaching out for help and communicating our emotions and mental health struggles.

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What Does Talking About Mental Health Look Like?

Research has suggested that poor mental health literacy is an obstruction to seeking mental health support during adolescence. Being able to recognise and disclose when we are experiencing difficulties with our mental health can also be hindered by stigma and feelings of shame or embarrassment. This stigma contributes to young people’s view of mental illness or difficulties and reduces the likelihood of them seeking help or treatment.

We can improve our mental health literacy and reduce this stigma in a number of ways.

One area where we can improve is speaking up about our own mental health, good or bad, if we are comfortable in doing so. Talking about your own experiences with your mental health or with mental health problems can inspire and empower others to seek support or speak up about their own mental health difficulties. This ripple effect is crucial to our emotional growth, as individuals and within our communities. However, it is important to remember to ask whoever you are communicating with if they have the mental capacity to listen, and that you do not assume that they have the mental space available.

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Something we stress in our eBRAIN mental health workshops is ‘it is impossible to know what someone’s mental health is like without talking to them’ — this is a sentiment I carry with me everywhere I go and try my best to be mindful of, no matter who I am speaking to.

We can ask our peers, family, and friends how they really are, and have compassionate, empathetic, and caring conversations. Exhibiting genuine care and truly listening to young people, whether they are struggling or not, can make an enormous difference and reassure them that it is absolutely ok and important to talk about the issues we face with our mental health.

Education certainly plays a colossal role in the improvement of our mental health literacy. We can educate ourselves about mental health in several ways, one being seeking out information online. What better place to start than right here on InSPIre the Mind? So many incredible writers have detailed their lived experience right here on the platform and it’s a great way to begin understanding unfamiliar perspectives and what it is like to experience a mental illness or go through a period of worse mental health.

Another fantastic resource we can utilise is mental health charities; there is a vast amount of information and guidance online about all things mental health, thanks to the work of these organisations. Here are some of my personal UK-based favourites (and I would highly recommend them!): Mind, YoungMinds, Samaritans, and Maytree (I actually wrote a blog on InSPIre the Mind about Maytree, which you can read here). We can also educate ourselves through attending free workshops, undertaking online courses and speaking to mental health professionals. These opportunities are more abundant than you might expect!

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Being the Change

Young people are our future and I wholeheartedly believe that their generation will lead the positive change and growth that we want to see in mental health, and the future of mental health altogether. I am hoping that we, as a wider society, can provide young people with the warmth, guidance and tools they need to help shape the approach to mental health and how we can make it more accessible to all.

I, along with many others, believe we can be the change we want to see.

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If you are interested in working with young people in this capacity, Place2Be offer a free ‘Mental Health Champions — Foundation’ programme and ‘DfE assured Senior Mental Health Leads Training’ to enhance professionals’ understanding of children’s mental health. They also offer a number of child counselling qualifications for specialising in working with children and young people.

If you are struggling and need support, you can get in touch with these services and organisations which offer help and support directly:

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