Call for Action Over UK’s Children’s Mental Health Crisis
Did you know that 4-10th February 2019 is Children’s Mental Health awareness week in the UK? This might seem surprising as mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety are more often thought of as adult conditions, however, it’s now believed that mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people.
In fact, we are now seeing worrying rates of self-harm in the UK and
soaring numbers of children seeking help for problems such as eating
disorders. A recent report from the Children’s Society revealed more
than 100,000 children aged 14 in the UK are self-harming, with 22% of girls affected. Reports from teachers, doctors and MPs across the UK have warned that children and teenagers are facing an “intolerable” mental health crisis and an urgent cash injection is needed in schools to prevent a lifetime of damage.
Maybe even more alarming is that 70% of children and young people who experience mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age. Good mental health in childhood is imperative as it enables children and young people to develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.
Risk factors for childhood mental health problems
Mental health problems for children and young people are often started and perpetuated by a direct response to what is happening in their lives. There are certain measurable risk factors that make some children and young people more likely to experience problems than other children, but these factors don’t necessarily mean difficulties are bound to come up in every individual.
Some of these factors include:
- Having a long-term physical illness.
- Having a parent who has had mental health problems, problems with alcohol or has been in trouble with the law.
- Experiencing the death of someone close to them.
- Having parents who separate or divorce.
- Having been severely bullied or physically/sexually abused
- Living in poverty or being homeless.
- Experiencing discrimination, perhaps because of their race, sexuality or religion.
- Acting as a carer for a relative/taking on adult responsibilities.
- Having long-standing educational difficulties.
These factors are major life events but it’s also the insidious nature of other everyday lifestyle factors that can tip the balance between mental resilience and mental health problems in children, young people and adults alike. These include:
High consumption of processed foods/sugar/fizzy drinks can result in a myriad of nutrient deficiencies, which in turn can affect mental and physical health. A recent global nutrition report found that one third of children do not eat fruit or vegetables daily, an important dietary food group that provides crucial vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients to support brain health.
Perhaps even more worryingly, the global study found that four in ten children drink a can of sugary fizzy drink every day. Studies from several years ago up to the present day demonstrate a link between frequent consumption of soft drinks and an increased risk of depression. ,
There’s no doubt that in recent years there has been a huge rise in children and young adults spending more time connected to the Internet, perhaps interacting with these devices even more than with their family and friends. Several recent reports suggest that:
- Too much screen time may be harmful for the developing child brain, as well as leading to social isolation.
- Self harm trebles among children and young adults who post on social media and even the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has warned social media companies that he will use the law to force them to act should they fail to remove inappropriate content that depicts self-harm.
So what helps keep children and young people mentally well?
When we consider supporting our children’s health we automatically think of a nutritious diet and plenty of psychical exercise in the outdoors. Factors to keep children and young people’s brains healthy include:
- Eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
- Having time and the freedom to play, indoors and outdoors to be in good physical health.
- Being part of a family that gets along well most of the time.
- Going to a school that looks after the wellbeing of all its pupils.
- Taking part in local activities for young people.
Other factors that are also important include:
- Feeling loved, trusted, understood, valued and safe.
- Being interested in life and having opportunities to enjoy themselves.
- Being hopeful and optimistic.
- Being able to learn and having opportunities to succeed.
- Accepting who they are and recognising what they are good at
- Having a sense of belonging in their family, school and community.
- Feeling they have some control over their own life.
- Having the strength to cope when something is wrong (resilience) and the ability to solve problems.
So what practical steps can parents, families, carers and teachers take to help shape children with resilient minds? Here are six simple areas that can be addressed to grow a healthy child;
Okay, so you may not have total control over what your child eats, but introducing a daily a fruit/veg smoothie for breakfast or after school can help to ensure that essential nutrients are consumed everyday. Including supergreens powders in the smoothie can help also boost the nutrient content.
Omega 3 essential fatty acids are key for brain health, as well as for heart and hormone balance. Krill oil or fish oils are a good way of getting the daily quota. The right balance of gut bacteria are also key to support brain health; a healthy diet rich in fibre from vegetables goes someway to supporting the right balance of gut bacteria, which can also be boosted with fermented foods like kefir yoghurt, prebiotic foods such as bananas and onions, and a daily good quality probiotic supplement. Phytocannabinoid oils also show promise with balancing the endocannabinoid system, which in turn supports a calm mood state, alleviating feelings of anxiety.
3. Screen time quota
Have family meals where all mobile phones and tablets (including the adults) are placed in a basket to enable quality family time away from technology. Also reduce screen time to a maximum of around three hours a day.
4. Take up a team sport/group hobby
Encouraging social inclusion with a group of like-minded children or young adults can help form strong friendships, which are essential for a healthy mind. It doesn’t matter what the focus of the activities are, e.g. learning a musical instrument, craft or sport, but the act of doing something positive and fun all helps to stimulate a healthy mind plus has the added benefit of keeping screen time down.
5. Keep a positive diary
There’s always something good that happens in the day, even if it’s small like someone laughing at your bad joke! Encourage children and young adults to talk and/or keep note of the happy times. A positive diary for young adults can be used when they’re not feeling not as good as a reminder of all the fun things they can do and how amazing they are!
6. Do something you love
For children and teenagers (and adults!) it’s too easy to focus on things they don’t like about themselves, but, encouraging them to do something they love can leave them feeling proud of what they’ve achieved and learn how to feel happy more consistently. For example, if they like cooking, then encourage them to enjoy the process of making the food and be proud of the finished product. Enjoy the meal as a family or group for even more socialising.
So whilst there may be much doom and gloom in the current media over children’s mental health problems, there are many simple things that we can do to support them as parents, families and friends. Children’s Mental Health Week is therefore not so much a worrying event precipitated by the state of poor mental health for children in the UK, rather it can be seen as a positive event to raise awareness of what can be done to turn this health issue in the younger generations around.
For more information about supporting children’s mental health, there are some great resources for carers and professionals. Please use the following links:
- Lien et al (2006) Consumption of Soft Drinks and Hyperactivity, Mental Distress, and Conduct Problems Among Adolescents in Oslo, Norway. Am J Public Health 96(10): 1815–1820
- Suglia et al (2013) Soft Drinks Consumption is Associated with Behavior Problems in 5-Year-Olds. J Pediatr 163(5): 1323–1328.