Looking after children and young people’s mental health after COVID-19 – David Walker, Deputy Head (Pastoral and Wellbeing), Wellington College, Berkshire
17 Jan 2023
Looking after children and young people’s mental health after COVID-19
I recently had a heart-breaking meeting with a parent of a child. She told me a story that was five years in the making and involved almost every type of intervention you would have heard of: doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, social care, you name it, they had either spoken to them or tried it. When I had a chance to reflect on it, my rather simplistic thought was: ‘How did it come to this?’.
When I was young in the 1990s, the umbrella term ‘mental health’ was simply not on our radars; now it seems to be around every corner we turn. The same thought may ring true for others in the generation that is now either parenting or educating today’s children and young people. This can leave us feeling helpless and, at worst, unable to give effective help to those who are struggling.
There has been a well-documented ‘crisis’1 in the mental health of teenagers (and adults) in recent years, particularly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This article aims to give some practical suggestions to parents of boarding school pupils about mental health issues.
WHAT IS GOING ON?
Issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal ideation have steadily increased and, although the Government has increased funding, the support available through NHS channels has not kept pace with demand. The Government paper Promoting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing: a whole school or college approach2 cites research that in 2020 1 in 6 children aged 5 to 16 had a probable mental health disorder – up from 1 in 9 in 2017. The number of referrals to children and young people’s mental health services between April and June 2021 increased by 134% since the same period in 2020, from just over 80,000 to 190,000, and up almost 100% from the same three-month period in 2019 (approximately 90,000). Public Health England have concluded that COVID-19 has had a negative impact on young people’s mental health, particularly in females and those with pre-existing mental health concerns. Additionally, there continues to be a significant problem surrounding the stigma attached to mental illness which means that people are less willing to seek help and support, often exacerbating the problem.
AND WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?
Schools are certainly responding to this, and parents may well be noticing an uptick of recent initiatives from school settings. Investment from the leadership of schools is certainly welcome, and it is likely that Looking after children and young people’s mental health after COVID-19 increasing capacity and attention will help improve matters. For example, at Wellington we have created a new role called ‘Head of Student Emotional Health and Wellbeing’ and we have appointed a clinical psychologist to the position. She helps me as Deputy Pastoral to ensure that all students in need have an appropriate support plan in place. How about parents? What should they do to best support children and young people?
To finish, here are my top five tips for helping children and young people who are struggling to maintain good mental health.
- Communicate throughout: Although stigma is reducing, it is still a powerful force preventing people talking about mental health. Please don’t think you will be the first parents to go to the school to tell them about an issue – you may be surprised how much experience they have. Talk to the school and share your concerns. Seek advice and guidance. Not only will you get the benefit of their expertise and help, but it will support you by feeling that you are part of a team. Once you come out the other side, tell the school what worked and what helped – they are still learning and will appreciate your feedback.
- Don’t over-react: If your child comes to you to say things are not right (or if your child’s school has told you about it) then they need to know that you will be able to cope with this and help them get through it. If you react with shock, anger or disbelief, the message they will hear is that you are out of your depth. In those first hours and days you are not expected to have all the answers but remember the power that language has to communicate that you remain the person in their life who loves them unreservedly.
- And don’t under-react: The temptation is to explain it away – ‘it’s just a phase’, ‘it’s not that bad’, ‘they are just jumping on a bandwagon’. Listen, take what they say at face value and seek professional support to make a judgement as to the severity of the situation.
- Show empathy: It may be very difficult to understand why your beautiful child has decided to self-harm. Your first thought may be one of utter disbelief and amazement – why would anyone do such a thing? But have you ever used unhealthy coping strategies? Have you ever had a hard day and then pushed yourself super-hard in the gym or had a third glass of wine in the evening? Try to understand that whatever the symptoms you are seeing, the causes will be found in the most fundamental aspects of human nature that we all experience.
- ‘Friends as balloons’: It may not be your child who is struggling but they may tell you they are worried about a friend. They want to support and listen to their friend, but it is clearly getting them down or making them anxious. How can you best advise them? We need to state two things clearly here – they are not mental health professionals and, secondly, if things are that bad, they should be helping their friend get the appropriate help. Their role is to do all they can to bring light and joy into the friendship. Use the analogy of a balloon: if you keep just blowing air into a balloon without ever playing with it, it will burst. Tie it off and use the balloon to have fun. As the old saying goes: ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’.
David Walker is Deputy Head (Pastoral and Wellbeing) at Wellington College in Berkshire. He has worked in both boarding and of football, time spent on a mountain bike, enjoying walks with his family and dog, and the occasional glass of wine.
1’Extent of mental health crisis in England at ‘terrifying’ level’, 9 April 2021, The Guardian
2Promoting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing: a whole school or college approach, September 2021, Public Health England
Wellington College, Berks