by Paula Smith
Most of us are aware of the increase in mental health problems in our society and communities however we are likely to associate this mostly with adults. Today’s children are in crisis – a survey suggests that 98% of teachers have supported a child in their class with mental health problems. These numbers are significant but equally surprising is that none of these teachers have been trained in how to approach the subject.
What do children need in order to grow up mentally stable? Although their upbringing and environment do not have to be perfect and ‘good enough’ will suffice sound mental health to develop, there are a few crucial requirements which should be met; safety, a warm environment and encouraging words from adults. Additional to this is having good friends.
Children are curious by nature and will seek to explore their environment and make contact with significant others. Babies as young as a few days old are receptive to others facial expressions and emotions and will respond to this. Children are naturally social beings who wish to develop relationships and affirm their identity.
What may go wrong? There are a set of risk factors which can contribute to the onset of mental health problems in children including psychological trauma, environmental stress, grievance, poverty and discrimination. This is of course complex as biology plays an important role too, for example, one child with environmental stress as a factor may not develop problems whereas another may. Gender, age, stage of development and education may also influence outcome.
Is it really the teacher’s role to support these children? Yes! Schooling plays a huge part in the child’s life and the teachers’ support either in isolation or additional to support at home is essential. There are initiatives to train teachers and other staff in how to deal with mental health problems in school and one school in Midlothian is offering a ten week course to children ages ten and eleven in order to raise awareness. Children are encouraged to create a box with familiar items inside to seek out when they feel the need.
Are there conditions in particular that children are more likely to suffer from? Children are particularly vulnerable to ADHD and also depression, GAD, self-harm and even PTSD. Raising awareness and being able to identify these conditions is certainly the way forward and many claim that Mental health First Aid should be mandatory for all those working in the sector.
Despite some positive initiatives it is found that only a third of schools have access to a counsellor and even then it is only one day per week. ‘Good mental health for all’, published in 2016 in Scotland seeks to find the cause of inequalities which are linked to the onset of mental health problems. Statistics are worrying with one in five children experiencing a mental health problem at least once during the first eleven years of their lives.
Prevention and early intervention are key and families should be supported and not stigmatised in order for their child’s problem to be tackled with care, dignity and encouragement.