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Talking to children about mental health

All children need to know about mental health. They need to know how to look after their minds as well as their bodies. They need to know that it is possible to feel mentally unwell as well as physically unwell. And what to do if that happens. They need to know that people can and do recover from mental illnesses. And they need strategies for supporting their friends to stay emotionally healthy and to be alert to others’ signs and needs. Talking to children about mental health gives a strong signal that mental health matters.

Many mental health issues first emerge in the teenage years. Half of adults with mental health conditions experienced their first symptoms before the age of 15. Approximately 10% of young people will experience a mental or emotional health issue each year – that’s three teenagers in every class. A teenage boy is more likely to die by suicide than to die in a road traffic accident. Talking to children about mental health from an early age makes it more likely they will talk to you if things get tough.

Talking to children about mental health boosts resilience

The stigma around mental health can deter children and young people from seeking help. This is especially acute for boys and men. Only 1% of people say they would turn to their dad first to talk about a mental health problem (8% would talk to their mum). Talking to children about mental health gives them the vocabulary to describe thoughts and feelings and sends the message that it’s ok to talk about them.

Try to create a family culture in which looking after yourself includes both physical and mental good health. And in which it is acceptable to acknowledge distress and ask for help. Story books are a great way to talk to younger children about feelings and worries and coping with change.

Talking about suicide

Supporting a distressed young person is more about listening than talking. Listening in a non-judgemental way that helps them feel secure. That means not jumping in with solutions but empowering them to take their own next steps.

If you are concerned that a child or young person is at risk of suicide, don’t be afraid to ask them directly. If they have been thinking about suicide, it will be a relief to talk about it. Don’t worry that it will somehow give them the idea or put the thought into their head. Listen calmly and non-judgementally – but do seek urgent expert help if a child or young person discloses suicidal thoughts.

Talking about friendship

Removing stigma from mental health means banning negative vocabulary or bullying around mental ill health. It means acknowledging that sometimes we all find our feelings getting on top of us and that having supportive friends can make a huge difference. Encourage your children to look out for their friends and to imagine standing in someone else’s shoes before they pass judgement.

If you are worried about a child’s mental health, talk to your GP or to Young Minds. If you think a child is at imminent risk of suicide, take them to A&E.

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