Children’s Mental Health Week. A rant.

I hear a lot of comments as I do the rounds of my training, a lot of thoughts and opinions, pre-judgements about mental health. Some thoughtful, insightful, some stigmatised/stigmatising, offensive and downright wrong. That’s ok. People come to learn about mental health, I want them to air their thoughts and preconceptions so we can discuss and challenge them. So we can educate and correct opinions which have been based on misleading information or social conditioning.

One of the main offenders is that lovely phrase “what do they have to be depressed about”? It can be applied in many scenarios, often when celebrities with their admittedly privileged lives talk about their experiences with mental health. Of course it is based on a complete misconception about what depression actually is, that it is something that cares a jot about your bank account, your good looks or wonderful life.

It is also used when it comes to young people and children. After all, as I remember adults being so fond of telling me when I was young, school / college / university are the best years of your life. Aren’t they? And of course kids don’t have any of that nasty 9 to 5 grindstone, mortgages and responsibility to deal with. So why on earth should they be depressed. Or be anything other than footloose and fancy free?

Again – aside from being wishful thinking (and perhaps a huge case of amnesia about the realities of being a teenager), this is based on an enormous misapprehension about mental health and how and why it can sometimes deteriorate to often quite dramatic extents, regardless of how old, or young, we are.

Other choice examples are that people self harm or develop eating disorders because it’s trendy. That it’s all the fault of social media – (before that it was television btw). That no one ever self harmed or got depressed or killed themselves when they were young. Just like no one was gay. Right. Ok.

Of course what they mean is that they never experienced these things, and no one they knew of told them that they did. It wasn’t spoken about at school or on the television programmes they watched. Rather than seeing the increased mention or report of these things as a result of increased awareness, openness, people feeling less ashamed to be open about it – it is something that to them has just appeared out of nowhere.

Then there is the question, are these children really depressed, or are they interpreting a bit of sadness or loneliness as depression because they have read about it. Actually if you think about it – this is an interesting one – because it’s progress – I’m not going to say that some vulnerable children might not do this. How we respond is so important. If we respond, as some might, with “Don’t be silly, of course you’re not depressed” – we need to question really carefully why we would think that. Are we assuming that our precious, delightful child could never really suffer with mental health difficulty? If so – why? Is it because we have not observed in them any signs or symptoms that might indicate that? Or is it because we think “DEPRESSION” is some big scary evil monster that only happens to other people. That Mental Illness is a spectre that could never stalk our home? Or do we think it’s all a load of snowflake nonsense?

Obviously the latter options require a bit of a reality check – that we all have mental health and many of us will at some point experience mental ill health to the extent we may need some help with it. Mental health issues come with varying severity and affect us in different ways – but most importantly around 75% of those of us who develop mental ill health, will start experiencing those difficulties before the age of 18. However even those of us with more understanding, who maybe know what to look out for might be prone to underestimating the challenges our children are facing. We haven’t seen little Joey looking sad or crying, they go to bed and get up the same as ever, go out and see their friends or play online just like they always did. We hear the loud music or get annoyed at their phone time and think everything is normal.

Hey. I might be alone in this but I don’t think I am. My parents knew diddly squat about my life when I was young. Part of that is another story, but even before things became problematic – after a certain point the last person who would know about my innermost feelings would be my parents. They didn’t know about my friendships, relationships, drinking, drugs, bullying, arguments, worries, self hatred, and emotional turmoil. They may have had inklings. And I don’t blame them – the primary reason they did not know is that I didn’t tell them. I didn’t want them to know. I actively hid problems I was going through from them. I pretended to be OK. I certainly didn’t tell them about self harm and suicide attempts. We do it as adults, we bottle it up and hope no one will notice that we’re struggling. For all sorts of reasons, most rooted in stigma and fear of discrimination or recrimination. But when I was young it wasn’t stigma about mental health, because i didn’t know that that was what was going on with me. It was the simple separation of parent and child. Their world and my world. And also their power and inclination to stop me doing things I wanted to do. Even if they were bad for me. So – just because you haven’t seen the signs, don’t dismiss it. It could be that things have finally got so bad that they are reaching out to for you for help. That’s such a gift and a privilege. Talk to them with sensitivity, kindness and empathy. Maybe they aren’t really depressed. But they clearly aren’t feeling great and talking to them about how they are feeling, what’s going on in their lives, and how long they have been feeling like that is important. Look at mental health resources to try self help techniques to deal with stress and negative thoughts, boost positivity etc. Help them build healthy habits. But most importantly – give the option of talking to the doctor about it. If they aren’t depressed they can still get some useful education about managing mood and also you are teaching them that it is ok to seek help if things do get bad. Rather than making it seem like a big deal and something to be ashamed of.

It’s also important to remember that some more severe mental health conditions can also emerge in the teenage years. They often start out with anxiety or depression, but if someone’s behaviour or beliefs become unusual or erratic, don’t jump to the conclusion that it is drug related – remember that some people may develop Bipolar Disorder or psychosis relatively young, and if we can catch it and ensure they get help at that early stage it is massively beneficial for their chances of recovery.

What have they got to be depressed about, they wonder. Lets talk about some of the things we know make it more likely that someone might experience depression. First of all our biological make up – Genetics – the structure of our brains. The tendencies we inherit from previous generations. Even the impact of traumas experienced by our parents and ancestors. Some research suggests that the effects of trauma can be handed down to our children. However, genetics do not mean we are cursed to definitely become ill. Even the rawest deal can be offset by our environment and experiences growing up. The first few years of our lives are crucial, shaping our adult persona, our emotional tendencies, beliefs and behaviours. How we deal with change, form relationships, handle difficulty. If those early years are not good – if we do not get the love and attention we need, if we are abused or neglected, if we are witness to aggression or violence, or if there are other ways in which things aren’t as they should be (even in some quite minor ways, if they unfortunately fall at crucial developmental times), then our risk of developing mental health issues increases.

And then we come to our education. Our relationships. The events of our lives. This last is perhaps what adults mean when they say “what do they have to be depressed about?” Situational depression is ok. It’s understandable. Your wife leaves you, you have money worries, you lose your job, somebody dies.

Actually what people get is grief. Sadness. Irritation. Bereavement. And indeed these can sometimes lead to depression if someone isn’t able to process the problem in a reasonable amount of time and return to a more level state of mind. But the idea is that something tangible must cause, or trigger your depression. And they suggest that nothing that happens before the age of 18 could possibly be significant enough to be worth noting.

How patronising. Never mind that so much pressure is placed upon us in those years to learn and perform and pass exams and decide what we want to do with our lives and who we want to be and how we want to live and what we believe. Never mind that we fall in love for the first time and have our hearts broken, or are bullied and victimised if we don’t fit in. Or that we are maybe realising that we are gay, or lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary – or forming opinions and beliefs that differ from our parents and we find it difficult to talk about it because we are always shouted down. Or maybe worse. Maybe we have been or are being abused, maybe we went through something awful and we haven’t been able to tell anyone. Maybe we are frightened for what the future holds. Maybe the pressures of social expectations are too much, always on social media society has many positives and many negatives but the only certainty is that our parents don’t really “get it”. Not what it means to us and our friends. Maybe we look at the world and we see it. The people in their twenties and thirties and forties who are struggling, divided countries, war, climate change, extinction, increasing hatred and risk of disaster that looms closer than it has in generations. Maybe when someone asks us what we want to do when we grow up we’re not so sure there shouldn’t be an “if” in that question somewhere.

But yeah. What have they got to be depressed about. Someone who maybe has genetic risk factors, and early development risk factors – maybe finds some of that other stuff harder to handle than others. Maybe they think more deeply, or feel more existential threat because their systems are primed to do so. It’s really important we do not dismiss it. We need to educate ourselves and our children to understand our emotional patterns and responses and learn how to manage our anxieties and negative thoughts if we are prone to them. We need to talk to our kids, make it safe for them to talk to us. Love your children for who they are. Let them tell you who they are rather than trying to fit them into some box you assumed they came in – and learn what you need to do to support them along the way. There are plenty of haters and trolls and bullies in the world who will make the life of children who are different or sensitive difficult – their parents shouldn’t be among them.

Children and young people’s mental health services are strained and struggling, but there are positive changes afoot. Regardless – ignoring or avoiding the issue will not make it go away, and we need to start on the road to learning about our mental health and what helps us as early as possible if we are to have the best chance of recovery. I wish I’d understood what I was going through at 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 …. as it was I was 20 when I first saw a doctor about mental health, and probably 25 before I got any real help. 35 before I properly understood what I do now. Don’t let that happen to your children.

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