Mental health is one of the biggest issues facing young people today. But how can you tell if your child might be in need of help?
A recent poll by The Prince’s Trust reveals that young people are struggling more than ever with happiness, confidence and the ability to focus. At the same time, university students are seeking more counselling than ever before, and universities are facing a mental health crisis with which their resources cannot keep up. Anxiety, depression and suicide rates are at an all-time high among young people, and while Theresa May has promised to tackle the ‘stigma’ around mental health, she stopped short of offering significant extra funding, despite acknowledging that untreated mental health issues destroy lives.
The mental health charity MQ found that 75% of people with a mental health condition start developing it before the age of 18, and 7 in 10 didn’t get sufficient help with it at an early age. According to an Institution for Public Policy Research report, three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health condition, and 90% of headteachers have announced an increase in pupil mental difficulties in the last five years. The same report suggests every secondary school should have on-site access to a mental health professional at least one day a week.
But how can you tell if a child is suffering with mental illness?
One of the greatest difficulties for a concerned parent can be identifying whether a child’s behaviour is simply in keeping the hallmarks of puberty and adolescence, or a sign of something more serious concerning their mental health. It is worth remembering that the following behaviours are, in general, pretty typical of teenagers (and definitely not a sign that you’re a terrible parent):
- Moodiness and tiredness
- Wanting more privacy and greater independence
- Being unwilling to discuss certain topics
- Spending more time alone/with friends than with family
- Resistance to authority
- At least some level of curiosity around alcohol, sex and drugs
Some of these may be concerning for parents, but ultimately they are to be expected from most teenagers. It’s not particularly instructive for parents to try and compare their children’s lives to their own teenage years as, to put it bluntly, times have changed. However, certain behaviours do not fit into the typical teenage patterns, and may be genuine cause for parental concern (again, though, they are not signifiers of bad parenting):
- No longer enjoying spending time with friends or family
- Significant sustained changes in eating, sleeping or behaviour patterns
- Absenteeism or significant drops in school performance
- Paranoia, frequent disobedience and verbal/physical aggression
- Noticeable hopelessness, sadness, anxiety or demotivation
- Unexplained physical symptoms – headaches, backaches, stomach aches
- Substance abuse or other dangerous, criminal behaviour
- Serious neglect of physical appearance and personal hygiene
Any of these could be a sign of mental health issues, however identifying such is not straightforward. Factors such as intensity, severity, nature and duration of a problem must all be considered, but most importantly, you must know who your teenager is and what they are about – what constitutes behaving out of character.
However, pride and denial from either parent or child can get in the way of identifying and addressing a problem. As a parent it may be easier to turn a blind eye, put it down to ‘just being a teenager,’ or refuse to acknowledge something problematic out of a worry that it reflects bad parenting.
What can you do?
If you are concerned and bring it up with your child, they may well get angry, defensive or blankly refuse to discuss it. Especially if they’re a teenager. And again, this could be because they feel put-upon, and that there is no serious underlying issue – but it could also mean that their mental health is suffering, but they are unwilling to discuss it with a parent. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring it up, even if you’re afraid of upsetting them.
It is worth sharing your concerns as a parent (‘I’ve noticed you’re not really going out much/eating much/sleeping enough’), and reassuring them that you are there to help, even if they don’t want to involve you. Listen, be calm, be understanding, be sensitive, don’t threaten, say what you mean and remember you can’t ever know exactly what they’re going through. If they are willing to open up and discuss it, progress can be made, but if not, you can point them towards professionals or dedicated charities. In some instances it may be useful to inform the school, as many (though not all) will have access to a mental health professional.
As someone who had serious mental health issues in my teens, it took me years to face up to it with my parents – three and a half years, to be precise. Indeed, when my mum once asked me about it, I straight up lied, said everything was fine, and she didn’t mention it again. In between, I confided in friends, partners, and even got help from a charity, and a friend’s mum. However, discussing it with my parents, and making it ‘their problem’ was not something I wanted to do for a long time. Even though when I did, they were a source of endless love and support, and encouraged me to get the help I definitely needed.
I had many friends in a similar position, and teenagers today – in an already more anxiety-inducing world – will frequently find themselves in a near-identical dilemma.
Minerva works with experts in children’s mental health, and can help provide child psychotherapy, as well as music therapy, dramatherapy, advice on fitness and nutrition, life coaching and mentoring – just call the Temple of Minerva on 0208 819 3276, or see our Child Support page here.
For more information on this post, check out this article from Friends of Mental Health. If you are worried about your child, it is worth exploring some of the charities that can help. These include Young Minds, The Children’s Society, MQ and Mind.
By David Bard
David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about everything that’s going on in education.