In society at the moment mental health concerns have been growing across the board, this unfortunately also applies to children.
Warning: this blog contains discussions of mental health issues in children which may be upsetting to read.
We all want what’s best for the children in our lives, all children for that matter. For many the thought of a vulnerable child facing mental health struggles alone is a hard pill to swallow, you’d hope that we as a society are doing everything our power to support them. Unfortunately, in many cases, for a variety of reasons, the support on offer to children and young people struggling with their mental health falls short.
Since the pandemic, the demand for children’s mental health services has doubled in many areas and with this demand continuing to grow. Funding for these services however has not changed in line with increased demand putting strain on NHS services, council run support services and the young people in need of support.
One way that this strain can be seen, is in the waiting times between waiting times and referral to services like the Children and Adolescents Mental Health Service (CAHMS). Access to support is a postcode lottery with more rural areas having far fewer mental health resources on offer especially for children. In these more rural areas, there have been reports of children waiting up to nine months for a mental health assessment. In this amount of time without support it is likely a mental health concern will grow into possibly a crisis or life-threatening emergency.
Due to long waitlists, there is a high threshold of who is actually accepted into treatment after referral meaning these services are failing to meet the overwhelming demand. 34% of young people referred to NHS services due to mental health concerns are not actually accepted into treatment, some being turned away if their issue isn’t urgent enough. Many young people don’t seek help regarding mental health because they don’t think their problem is bad enough. This allows the issue to carry on unnoticed and grow into a far bigger issue. A child shouldn’t need to wait until they are having a mental health crisis which can be life-threatening in order to get support.
As mental health services continue to struggle, it has been proposed that schools should have qualified help on hand to help tackle the early stages of mental health issues. This is a good idea considering the fact that approximately one in five pupils aged seven to sixteen are suspected to have a mental health disorder. This service is also limited with only an expected 25% of primary schools having access by 2024. This added support in schools allows symptoms to be spotted early and addressed in a safe familiar space while reducing pressure on NHS services. The limited availability of such support, does however create a gap in care where some children have mental health concerns too complex for the school to handle but not severe enough to be referred to NHS care, leaving these children in a position where they are unable to get the support they need.
Why may children struggle with mental health?
There are lots of possible things that can affect a child’s mental health, in recent years isolation and changing of routine during the pandemic had a negative impact on mental health for many children. Children may have a harder time processing difficult life event, things that you find tricky are even harder to deal with as a child.
This includes things like death or illness in the child’s family or community or a separation of parents making a child have lots of confusing emotions they are not used to. Moving house of school can create a difference in routine and environment that negatively impacts a child’s mental health. As children spend the majority of their time at school issues from this environment can be overwhelming. This may include stress from exams, feeling like school work is too difficult and even issues with relationships and friendships which are involved in a large majority of a child’s time at school.
In a school environment, unfortunately bullying is something that may also affect a child’s mental health which can be carried over into the online world of social media to impact a child at home as well as in school. Toxic online content can be responsible for low self-esteem in children as it promotes an unattainable image of perfection, this can make a child feel like they are not successful and sometimes create a negative body image. These body image issues can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food or exercise, and can be linked to mental health concerns like disordered eating.
What can we do to help?
Despite the current strain, there is still mental health support available for children and young people who need it. This comes in the form of community help, support at school and through the NHS. The NHS offers cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to children struggling with stress, anxiety and other mental health concerns, this is prescribed by your GP. A GP can also offer mental health support when needed as well as referral to services such as CAMHS.
If you are a parent or look after children it is important to look out for possible signs of mental health struggles. Possible signs include: a dramatic change in behaviour, withdrawing from social situations, not wanting to do things they usually enjoy, difficulty sleeping, changes in eating habits, neglecting themselves and self-harm. This isn’t an exhaustive list, mental health issues can display themselves in children in many ways, if you have concerns it is best to act on them.
You know your child best and if you have concerns it may be best to look into further help, you can do this via your doctors, as well as taking to the school to see if they have contacts with local help services, charities can also offer support. If you have immediate concern over the safety of a child due to mental health issues, treat it as an emergency and call 999.
Here at Little Lives UK we have a mental health campaign called Someone to talk to which aims to reduce the average 18 week waiting time for referrals to a mental health professional as this time allows for further deterioration of a child’s mental health many times resulting in an increased risk of self-harm or suicide. At Little Lives UK with the help of our partners we provide funding for children to see mental health professionals privately so that they can get the one-to-one counselling they require, when they need it instead of too late.
There are things you can do to directly support a child in your life if they are struggling. For many children home feels like the safest place and so is likely the first place they may express concerns or signs of mental health struggles.
Listen to you children, really listen and take what they say seriously. This makes a child feel like they can talk freely and reminds them that their experiences are valid and valued by the adults in their lives. Show genuine interest in your child’s life and encourage positive interests so your child has something positive to focus their energy on.
Maintaining structure in a child’s life has a huge positive impact on mental health, this can include a healthy lifestyle of diet and exercise, a good balance between school work and home life and a good sleep schedule.