When grown-ups reminisce about childhood, we think of halcyon, bygone days of endless play. But there was always another side to childhood – one that, until more recently, was seldom discussed. Children’s television shows – like those featuring Andi Peters in the UK or Fred Rogers in the US, for example – held space for it: the topic of feelings; the idea that the world outside could look one way, but the hidden world inside us could feel quite different.
The conversation began in hushed tones – until we were saying it aloud: children have difficult feelings too. They, too, struggle with mental health. In fact, 1 in 6 children in the United Kingdom (Place2Be) and the United States (CDC) has a treatable mental health disorder. For these children, our rose-tinted visions of childhood feel hopelessly unfamiliar. With the shadow of Covid-19 firmly cast over us, the mental health of our children has never been more of a priority.
The kids aren’t alright: the current state of children’s mental health
Here’s what we know about the state of children’s mental health in the United Kingdom, according to the NHS Mental Health of Children and Young People surveys:
Since 2017, the rates of children with likely mental health disorders have increased from 1 in 9 to 1 in 6 in 2020. The increase was evident in both boys and girls. Children with a probable mental health disorder were more likely to say that the impact of Covid-19 (specifically lockdown) had made their life worse when compared to children without a mental health disorder. This may imply that lockdown is worsening symptoms in children with existing mental health problems.
Unfortunately, simply returning to schools after lockdown may not be a simple solution. According to a YoungMinds report, 40% of children said that there was no counsellor available to support students in their school – and 23% (prior to the third lockdown) said that there was even less support for mental health problems than before the pandemic.
BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities face particular challenges in addressing child mental health. In seeking help, they often contend with significant obstacles to being heard or understood – including racism and discrimination as well as social and economic inequalities.
Origin story: what are the contributing causes of child mental health problems?
Child mental health is influenced both by genetics and environmental factors. A child may be born with a predisposition or tendency to develop a mental health disorder, but certain situations may influence its severity and presentation.
Children with a probable mental health disorder were more than twice as likely to live in a household that had fallen behind in payments. Among 16-18 year old girls with a probable mental health disorder, 63% had witnessed an argument among adults within the household – as opposed to 46.8% of those who were unlikely to have a mental health problem.
What can be done to address the children’s mental health crisis?
The adage rings particularly true here: to reverse the increasing prevalence of child mental health problems, it will take a village. Fundamentally, the ecosystem around our children requires special attention. We’ll need to revisit systemic cuts to school budgets that would allow for school psychologists and other support staff, and healthcare provisions that focus specifically on child mental health. 33% of young people who were accessing this support prior to the pandemic confirmed that they can now no longer access it (YoungMinds).
What can parents do to help their children?
For concerned parents struggling with the impact of lockdowns and the general state of the world, policy changes cannot come soon enough. Until then, they’re right to question what can be done – especially since professional support may not be readily available.
In terms of managing a child’s mental health at home, here are some simple ways to help your child navigate a difficult time:
- Manage your child’s stress and tension by making time for relaxation and mindfulness practices. Establishing a routine, like the one we provide in Kai’s Sanctuary – our children’s mental health app – can do wonders for a child’s wellbeing.
- Make time to speak directly with your child about their emotional health and feelings. Hold space for your child to be open and honest with you, and listen openly, without judgment. Ensure this time is uninterrupted.
- Revisit the problem. Work on challenges that your child is facing together by coming up with alternate explanations for why a difficult situation unfolded in the way it did. Focus on problem-solving together.
- Keep active together. Exercise has been shown to have profound effects on mental health. Join a Zoom workout class, or create your own HIIT routines at home. Our upcoming app, Tala’s Yoga Class, makes it incredibly fun and easy to complete gamified routines at home.
- Look after your own health and wellbeing. Ensure that you’re making enough time for yourself.