This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week (9th – 15th May) is Loneliness. In the words of the Mental Health Foundation, loneliness is an epidemic in the UK, and reducing it is a ‘major step towards a mentally healthy society’ (1).
Loneliness affects many of us at some point in our lives, and can be closely linked to poor mental health. When we think of loneliness, however, it’s often in relation to older people, living alone, but anyone can experience feelings of loneliness at any stage of life (2).
There are a number of reasons why young people in particular can feel lonely. If they’re struggling with their mental health, it can feel difficult to interact with friends and loved ones. This can be heightened at times of physical and emotional change, such as starting a new school or challenges in friendship groups (3).
Loneliness affected many of us during the pandemic, as loved ones, friends, colleagues and communities were separated. For some young people, this rift was much harder, as they were stripped of in-person interaction with friends, teachers and support networks during critical years of their social development.
This loneliness and isolation came at a time when children and teenagers were also dealing with the anxiety and uncertainty of the pandemic itself, introducing and exacerbating the potential for mental health problems. For many young people, loneliness, anxiety and depression became consistent feelings.
Sadly, children’s and young people’s mental health has been in decline for many years. Today, the NHS believes around one in six children in the UK has a mental health problem (4). With more and more children and young people experiencing mental health problems, it is expected that this worrying trend will continue post-pandemic for many years to come. A terrible side effect of COVID-19.
What does a mental health problem mean for children?
One ongoing study of teenagers’ experiences of the pandemic in the UK found that more than a quarter of teens surveyed said they felt nervous, anxious or on edge for most days of the two previous weeks (5). It was also found that young people from less advantaged homes struggled the most, with a sharp correlation between worsened mental health and lower socioeconomic background.
For many poorer families, the pandemic brought increased bills and food insecurity, such as during the free school meals scandal. Today, these worries continue with the cost of living crisis. A child’s access to plentiful, healthy food helps to form their relationship with food. This is just one factor that impacts mental health, though.
Children’s mental health affects how they feel about themselves, their connection to society and their friends, sleep patterns and their ability to concentrate and maintain motivation for school, hobbies and exercise. Mental health conditions that begin during childhood often persist for years, and children pay a heavy price while their ability to function is impacted (6).
And that’s where stigma and negative connotations surrounding mental health can be so vicious. Not only can stigma increase a mental health problem, but it can also discourage children from seeking help, talking about their emotions, and accepting treatment when they need it most. Two thirds of young people would prefer to access mental health support without going through their GP (7). Yet specialist mental health services that afford young people some privacy are stretched, with long waiting lists.
Support from all walks
So how can young people get the help they need? While social media has a bad reputation for providing opportunities for bullying and unhealthy beliefs and behaviours in teens, many young people are heading to social media to talk openly about their mental health. So much so, there are now mental health professionals on TikTok. We’re not promoting social media as a form of professional, medical treatment, however, it does help to bring the topic of mental health into the environments young people inhabit today. Much like young climate activism, is it the younger generations who will chivvy society into facing the issue of mental health?
Away from social media, a key way in which adults are providing mental health support to children is through their communities. Grass roots initiatives that cater to local people on specific issues, and can help to make a real difference to young people within the community.
Take, for example, the Weald Family Hub. A micro-charity near to Catch A Fire, the Weald Family Hub was set up and is run by local people for local children. In fact, many of the Hub’s activities are coordinated by Louise, our Client & Brand Purpose Director. The Hub directly addresses the growing mental health crisis young people are facing, with the most recent emphasis on the impact of the pandemic on children.
As one of a number of support options offered, the Weald Family Hub offers professional mental health counselling places to local schools by working in partnership with the children’s counselling charity, Fegans. The charity also provides parent support and training, opening up conversations and showing children they are not alone in their mental health journey. Being able to provide a clear, accessible pathway to treatment allows local schools to take meaningful steps to reducing stigma and building awareness, as well as helping individual children.
“Having professional mental health support available for pupils in schools at the time when they most need it is extremely important.” says Louise, “We believe early intervention is key, which is why we focus our support on local Primary schools. For children who need mental health counselling, it can be a turning point for them. For some, it is life-changing”
Alongside local initiatives are, of course, larger ones, such as the upcoming introduction of a brand new Natural History GCSE to school syllabus’. The focus of study will be on protecting the planet, but giving children more opportunities to experience and understand the outdoor world will also benefit their mental health.
Since the pandemic, when many of us found more time to explore the outdoors, there has been a huge focus on the benefit of nature on our mental wellbeing. 45% of people in a recent survey said visiting green spaces helped them to cope throughout the pandemic (8). In fact, the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 was Nature.
Together, both community and nationwide initiatives can make real change to young peoples’ lives. Both are key to pushing the public conversation forward, reducing stigma, and opening up more opportunities for children to access treatment, and to feel safe in doing so.
We are all on a journey
Making meaningful change to how we understand, accept and act on mental health problems as a society is much more than just talking about it. How we address mental health as a society will, both directly and indirectly, support children struggling with their mental wellbeing.
Connection with other people is fundamental to protecting our mental health and throughout Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond we’re encouraging everyone to think more about their connections with colleagues, friends and family as a way to help reduce loneliness and encourage positive mental health.
At Catch A Fire, our bright sparks are everything. We’ve begun training a squad of Mental Health First Aiders, through MHFA England. And together, as a team, we’re creating more awareness and an open culture of each others’ mental wellbeing.
Got time for one more? Dive into our team’s tips on talking about mental health.