First published on Place2Be’s partner intranet 

By Nic Higham, Inpatient Care Project Manager at Star Wards 

We know that mental health has been overlooked in the past. This is mostly because of stigma and people not appreciating just how many people are affected and how devastating that effect is. But, thankfully, we are talking about it now and that’s most certainly a very good start. Somewhat unbelievably, it’s taken society a long time to come to the view that mental health deserves the same priority as physical health. The converse is starting to seem ridiculous. We’re waking up to the fact that mental wellness is a massive concern for society at large. We shouldn’t however, beat ourselves up for failing to appreciate these truths before. That won’t get us anywhere, and would be bad for our mental health.

In this raising of awareness, the mental wellness of children and young people is coming increasingly into the spotlight. Perhaps the emotional trials our young people go through are due to the unique pressures they face today (including the perils of cyberbullying, social media and constant academic examination), or it could be that greater awareness is enabling more youngsters to identify problems and be more willing to open up to others. Either way, the fact that there’s a significant and genuine need out there is finally being emphasised. The impact these troubles have on young people shouldn’t be underestimated.

So, although we have started this conversation, we have to keep it going because it’s a conversation that should never stop. And as we talk it’s becoming increasingly clear that the mental health of our children is holistic; that it includes their emotional, psychological and social well-being. Now more than ever sufferers have a voice and, crucially, are being heard. At long last our young are more confident about the necessity of disclosure and help.

We’re also learning that one of the best ways for fostering good mental health is in schools where positive discussions about wellbeing can happen every day. Golden opportunities to discover coping skills, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, mindfulness and building resilience are in the hands of educators. Therefore, schools need autonomy and funding to create programmes that aim to reduce the extent and severity of distress. But we cannot expect teachers, who are under pressure in so many areas, to be unsupported in this. That is where excellent initiatives and charities such as the wonderful Place2Be have an essential role to play. They’re providing both universal and targeted services for young people in schools, alongside support for parents and consultation and advice for school staff.

As compassionate adults, we need to feel equipped and capable of responding to the urgency of every young person’s cry for care and assistance. It’s essential that young people and their careers are fortified with the appropriate support, knowledge and coping strategies needed. Mental health problems are ‘family affairs’ – they have an overwhelming effect on loved ones, and it’s crucial that families are involved in resolving them. Families need support. Although we cannot always change a young person’s immediate situation, we can offer them and their families the tools to cope.

Young people are gradually finding the courage to voice their experience and reach out to friends, family and teachers. As mental health problems often start in adolescence, early intervention is key if we are to effectively improve present and future quality of life for those affected. As a society – a familial macrocosm, if you like – we need to make sure we’re doing everything possible for the most vulnerable young people who deserve to receive the very best care as speedily and straightforward as possible. They need to know that their voices are being heard and their concerns are listened to. They need caring, trustworthy relationships with the adults who are responsible for them. They need to be taken seriously and to be valued. The magnitude of their challenges shouldn’t be overlooked because they’re real.

Fortunately, and perhaps because of this heightened awareness, there are now sources of good information for concerned families which provide education on emotional well-being and how to best advocate for their children. Those closest to young people are usually the first to recognise that they’re having substantial difficulty with their emotions or behaviour. Consequently, nothing but good can come from educating ourselves, whether we are parents, family members, young people, their friends, teachers or nurses. Young people are most likely to turn to their friends for help, which is why we need to teach all young people how to support each other. It’s heartening to see the emergence of ‘mental health first aider courses’ some of which welcome children as young as eight years old to enrol.

There’ll probably always be young people and families with needs that are so complex they require admission to a highly specialist Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS) inpatient units. As with other staff groups, most CAMHS wards’ staff are impressively creative and compassionate. However difficult going into hospital can be, there are opportunities as well. CAMHS wards throughout the country provide a rich assortment of therapeutic, educational, social and clinical interventions. Being an inpatient offers an opportunity for young people to attain new skills and achievements, to build up their muscles of resilience, to discover hope, to feel validated and safe, to be heard and involved, to do something fun, enjoyable and constructive, to express themselves, to make new friends, and to grow and move forward in their own developmental and recovery journey.

CAMHeleon.org is a new CAMHS ward best practice website which has been developed by Star Wards. The site focuses on the things that really make a positive difference to young inpatients, identifying small changes that have a big impact. Its overall objective is to support ward staff in enabling young people to really make the most of this time away from their usual lives. CAMHeleon’s contents are informed by research into aspects of young people’s wellbeing and how CAMHS wards can best provide and support these collaboratively. The site showcases an assortment of ideas, articles, quotes, research and resources about therapeutic CAMHS care which are hoped to stimulate and support the ongoing conversation about young people’s mental health.

As a society, we should draw some confidence from the fact that we’ve made progress in raising awareness about mental health issues. Indeed, the modelling of self-esteem and self-confidence begins with us. However, we shouldn’t think that awareness alone is enough to make the positive changes to young people’s lives. Understandably, parents still find it difficult to broach or tackle the subject with their children who are probably up against the same barrier, maybe coupled with a lack of understanding about what they’re going through when early symptoms kick in.

We’re seeing a shift in the stigma, but it does prevail and we need to confront it. We can all play a part to change this, whether through offering empathic support and understanding, delivering direct interventions, or refusing to speak disparagingly about mental illness. We can be mindful of stigmatising language. We can seek to discover ways to offer support and reassurance, so those affected know they’re not alone. Only good can come from keeping the conversation going. We need to be as open as we can be because these issues affect us all. We’ll feel less alone and hopeless if we acknowledge that. Stigma always derives from ignorance and fear so let’s continue to educate ourselves and encourage even more understanding and mindfulness.

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