Katie Paynter, Head of Pre-Prep at St Nicholas Preparatory School in London, shares advice on how we can support the mental health of the young people around us. 

Regrettably, mental health, whether it be in children or adults still holds a stigma and it is not yet treated with similar parity to physical health.

Mental health problems currently affect about 1 in 8 children and young people and are very often a direct response to events in their lives. The more we talk about mental health, the more we can understand how the issues around it, impact young children both in the short and long term. Undoubtedly, mental health affects everyone, both positively and negatively, and each person differently. Often the stigma around mental illness is caused by a lack of understanding, so sharing knowledge is a key part in improving practice.

Many children grow up mentally healthy, but surveys do suggest that more have problems with their mental health today, than 30 years ago. This is probably because of the changes in the way we live now and how this affects the experience of growing up.

As parents, your behaviour can be instrumental in supporting your child negotiate the trials of 21st century life. In a warm, open relationship, children usually feel able to communicate their troubles. Simply listening, taking on board their feelings or giving that hug demonstrating unconditional love is often all that is needed. Children’s negative feelings usually pass. However, it is important to seek support if your child is distressed for a period of time, if their negative feelings are impacting daily and/or family life or if behaviour is aberrant.

If problems involve school, do engage with the staff there. They will be able to help, or to direct you to the most appropriate support. Their input will be invaluable and the deep care that they can facilitate will be instrumental in the longer-term outcomes. Other options include talking to your GP or health visitor.  They are able to refer to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), where there is access to a wealth of skilled professionals.

For children who are impacted by poor mental health, significant emphasis is placed on talking and on understanding the problem, in order to identify the most effective way to tackle it. All professionals are hugely mindful of the children’s age and levels of maturity, and for many this is done through play.

Frequently parents enquire on how best to ensure their children maintain excellent mental health. To do this there has to be an innate sense of feeling trusted, understood, valued and safe. Ensuring children accept who they are and recognise their strengths is essential. Children need to have security and a sense of belonging within their family, school and community. They need to have a feeling that they have some control over their own life, as well as an ability to manage change. Above all there has to be an understanding that they are not being judged. It is appreciated that parenting is not easy, but an understanding of the importance of emotional well-being, will impact on practice and outcomes.

Ultimately, mental health is not what defines a young person, but a good mental health enables children to develop the resilience to manage whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.