Making mental health a priority for children and young people

24th May 2022 - Kayla Herbert

Written by Jo Stockdale, Well Within Reach

Across the world, there are various purposes to ‘Children’s Day’. To change the way they are viewed in society, to protect their rights, to end child labour, to promote access to education or improve their welfare. Many of us would like to see a whole culture shift in children’s rights. 

Making mental health a priority

While children in the west are, overall, not subject to child-labour or denied an education, they are still habitually denied the rights that adults are afforded. For example, it’s still common place for behaviour-management systems like ‘traffic lights’ and rainclouds to be displayed on classroom walls. How would we, as a workforce feel, if our performance, or our perceived levels or lack of obedience and compliance, were displayed on staff notice boards for all to see?

Access to mental health services is another right that debatably falls well below par for young people too. With waiting lists longer than ever as demand for CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) far outstrips supply, we have a growing epidemic of young mental ill-health in the UK.

But, there is another level to this and it’s deeper than access to mental health services.

For example, we are well rehearsed in the importance of 5-a-day and an active lifestyle for children. They have a right to physical health and this is built into their education. All children, not just those who are overweight for example, are offered physical education because we all know that maintaining good health is better than curing poor health.

Likewise, we monitor their sugar intake. We teach them about dental health and ensure they brush their teeth. Not once cavities appear, but to prevent cavities to begin with.

And yet the offer around mental health is so much more reactive. Yes, we have a PSHE curriculum, but given the epidemic proportions of mental ill-health in the UK’s children, can we honestly say that it’s doing enough?

The harsh reality is that 80% of adult mental health service users in this country have lived with their condition since before their 18th birthday. If mental ill-health is to become a life sentence for more than three quarters of afflicted children, don’t we all need to be meeting their emotional needs while they’re still young?

How the A-Z wellbeing activity cards can help

Just like our actions to ensure physical health and dental health need to happen every day, the nurture of young minds has to be a fundamental right for every child, every day.

And that is just one of the many reasons why we developed the A-Z activity wellbeing cards: ‘C is for Creativity! And 29 Other Ways To Nurture Healthy Young Minds’.

Included in every free pack are 26 A-Z cards plus 4 ‘Wild Cards’, which are designed to share simple but transformative insight about mental health and wellbeing for practitioners and educators. It offers learners a diverse and flexible range of practical and creative ways to explore what it means to be, and stay, emotionally well and socially connected.

At the heart of this resource is the knowledge to help children to understand themselves. What’s happening in their own emotional worlds and others? How can they respond to those feelings in a healthy way? How do they do more of what feels good and less of what doesn’t? How do they thrive, not merely survive, when faced with challenge and uncertainty, and trust themselves to find their way in the world?

Here are some examples of how the A-Z cards can help:

E is for Endings
Any significant change, even welcome change, can destabilise mental wellbeing considerably. From the routineness of school transition to the extreme end of being a child in care, and everything in between — separation divorce, moving house, bereavement, many children struggle with goodbyes.

Ruptured relationships can feel like a wound that won’t heal, and yet learning to have a positive relationship with endings, to experience them, if not with joy, but with acceptance and to trust in their own ability to cope with them, maybe even to expect good things from them, is not difficult if it’s part of our regular practice. The E card reminds us to practice experiencing goodbyes and endings in a healthy way.

N is for Novelty
It only need take seconds, a couple of minutes at most, to break the monotony of the day up with an impromptu version of ‘head-shoulders-knees-and-toes’, to sing a song as fast as we can or to change places.

It might not take any time at all to just switch around the order of the day’s lessons, or call the register in reverse, or ask your pupils to answer in an animal noise.

When we give children just one minute to look out for all the reds, or find all the squares, or close their eyes to listen to all the sounds, or we step outside to do learning — they’re developing strategies for emotional regulation, to re-set, re-energise and re-connect.

The brain loves novelty! Whether it’s fun and laughter, movement, a moment of mindfulness, they all change brain chemistry, generating healthy hormones like dopamine which flush out stressor hormones (which incidentally also speeds up learning capacity).

When such things are only reserved for ‘reward’, wellbeing days, the last 5 minutes of the day, the Friday afternoon golden time; we’re denying our students valuable opportunities. The N card teaches us to bring some novelty into any part of our day.

Helping children and young people thrive

Let’s teach children and young people to listen to their bodies and minds. As adults, far too many of us end up burned-out and ill because we’ve been peddled the myth that learned the key to success is to work ourselves into the ground.

Soon these children will be all grown up. Let’s be bold enough to teach them, what we, as grown-ups, tend to have learned far too late. That the healthiest, happiest and most productive version of ourselves comes from nourishing and nurturing ourselves!

Jo Stockdale (Well Within Reach) provides training about brain development, social and emotional competence and wellbeing issues such as resilience and self-esteem. She is the co-creator of IVE’s A-Z wellbeing activity cards.

Sign up to receive a free pack of A-Z wellbeing activity cards here.

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