Written by Jo Stockdale, Well Within Reach
When we talk about physical health, we seldom just use those two words – we use a whole host of them like fitness, stamina, agility, flexibility, energy, speed and strength. So what does it mean to be mentally healthy? We all know it’s much more than the absence of a mental health diagnosis, but if we don’t have the clarity on what we mean by it, how can we strengthen, improve and sustain it?
One of the marked differences (IMO) between physical and mental health is that we value physical health, not just the absence of ill-health. We tend to watch what we eat and we exercise. Some of us set ourselves fitness goals or obsessively count our steps. We moderate our calorie intake or our alcohol intake and avoid health-damaging habits like smoking. And when something hurts, we listen to pain and receive the ‘rest and repair’ message.
Unfortunately, mental health often means loading ourselves with daily pressures and expectations to do more, do better, to go faster and further. And double unfortunately, children and young people are far from escaping these problems too.
With epidemic proportions of mental ill-health in our children, painfully long waiting lists for services, and disturbingly high rates of self-injury and suicide, children’s mental health needs to be taken much more seriously.
And part of making things better has to be valuing mental health in the same way as we value physical health. Why, for example, when we offer PE to every child, not just those who are overweight, do so many children have to wait until they’re suffering; some at crisis point, before anybody takes the need seriously? Especially when that so often means 18 months on a waiting list, while their mental health continues to deteriorate?
For many schools, the emotional education offer nowhere near matches the PE offer. Aside from the fact the all young people deserve mental health in its own right, poor emotional health can be absolutely devastating for learning capacity.
The biochemicals associated with distress, adrenaline and cortisol, for example; are highly acidic. They not only slow down synaptic connectivity, like learning, but in extreme cases, can burn brain tissue. And yes, the impact of that is as bad as it sounds.
So those of us who support young people in anyway can all make a massive difference to their wellbeing, regardless of whether we have a mental health remit or not.
It’s in everyone’s best interests not to simply wait until a child is falling apart and then pick up the pieces, or signpost them on to relevant services, but to prevent them from falling apart to begin with. To develop children and young people’s self-awareness, emotional regulation skills, and to help them build resilience and buoyancy, so that when they do face challenges, they understand what’s happening to them and feel competent and capable of handling the situation.
IVE’s A-Z wellbeing activity cards, C is for Creativity! And 29 Other Ways To Nurture Healthy Young Minds, is full of possibilities for us to do just that. Read on below to learn how these cards can help support children and young people’s mental health.
For a start, the ‘wild cards’ are designed to adjust brain chemistry into a healthier and more learning ready state:
Who knew that looking out for the squares or the circles and the reds or the blues, could do that? Landing in the present and finding a way to silence the inner-chatter, the voice of doubt or anxiety, can have a calming effect on the whole nervous system.
You Are Not Alone
A quick name game or singing a song together can generate oxytocin, our ‘connecting’ hormone. This super-healthy neurotransmitter flushes stressor hormones from the system and talks to the most primitive part of the brain that’s wired to feel threatened. When children and young people feel feel safe their most basic of all human needs is being met. In other words, a sense of belonging is the foundation to both good learning and mental health.
A is for Acceptance
This isn’t just about being accepted into a group or having friendships. It’s about staying out of problem-solving territory and avoiding saying ‘yes, but’ or ‘at least’ when a child shares something difficult or painful with us. Easier said than done, but what a relief it can be to just be heard and seen? For someone to communicate: “You can feel whatever you feel and that’s ok, because I accept you.”
D is for Decision Making
At any age, we all need a sense that we’re masters of our own ship. But, especially in the last two years, children have been stripped of so much of their agency, and most don’t have very much to begin with anyway. There’s a bit of a myth that, by making children feel powerful, by giving them choice and voice, we’re somehow undermining our own authority. On the contrary, now’s the time to make sure children feel autonomous and in charge of their own lives. If children don’t grow up believing that their destiny is in their hands, why would they even try? Power isn’t like a remote control, where only one person has all the power. Power can be shared. What decisions can your pupils make today?
G is for Gratitude
We don’t all need a daily gratitude practice to get the best out of it. Evidence is showing that meaningfully practicing gratitude actually has the capacity to restructure the brain. It generates healthy biochemicals that ripple through the whole body. When we authentically tune into gratitude, our brain tells our heart, which thanks us by slowing down the heart rate and lowering blood pressure (That’s just one reason why we need to talk less about physical health and mental health as two different things, but that belongs to a different blog post!).
S is for Sadness
It’s understandable that we may think of sadness as being bad for mental health, but this isn’t necessarily that case. ‘Sad’ originates from the word ‘satiated’, meaning full. And while we want to help children feel better when they’re sad, don’t simply shoo it away with a ‘let’s think positive’ statement. Sadness can be very healing, even if it’s uncomfortable for the child, and us. Sometimes we are all just meant to be full of sadness, and the greatest comfort we can be given is acceptance, and to know we are not alone.
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.
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