It’s World Mental Health Day, and there is no doubt whatsoever that the mental health of society starts, first and foremost, with the health and wellbeing of parents, and particularly that of mothers.
After all, we’ve all heard sayings such as, “a happy mother, happy children” or “happy mummy, happy home”.
Today’s figures are alarming
According to The World Health Organisation, half of all mental illness starts by the tender age of 14.
Manifest mostly in the form of so-called ‘typical’ and ‘challenging’ behaviours that we often associate with the stereotypical, but often rocky, terrain of teenage phases: substance misuse, engaging in risky behaviour and an obsession with body-image. Commonly hidden and thus left untreated.
These behaviours are actually symptoms of depression, anxiety and eating disorders, to name only a few.
Put simply, that’s a staggering amount of young people dealing with difficult feelings and potentially getting into terrible situations.
Been there too, right?
More worrying, are those, of which there are many, who are not counted within the statistics. In part due to the labelling of the teenage years as being a ‘tricky’ age anyway.
Who else is there?
Information like this sends a chill straight through my core because it rings so true to my own young years, as well as for most people I know.
We have all been vulnerable.
I’d like to think that things have changed, for the better, but with statistics like that, as well as the hidden ones, it’s clear that the demands of this modern world are having an adverse effect on the young – in ways that we can’t fully empathise with simply because we haven’t been there; going through the exact same things, at the exact same time.
Even though we (most of us with experience of mental health), may hear the echoes of similarity and identify with many of the same emotions behind it all.
We need to lean in more.
It’s time to talk
Thank goodness, though, that we are having these conversations.
Never before has there been such a healthy discussion of mental health.
This is why I got involved with Sanctuary Magazine well over a decade ago, as well as with the work of Time to Change and Richmond Fellowship – to help get these discussions going at all levels of society. It pleases me so much that we are talking more than ever.
More discussion ultimately helps more parents, doctors and teachers to recognise any symptoms within their young people.
Making it possible that, just perhaps, the child or young adult is ‘having’ a problem, as opposed to ‘being’ a problem.
It brings hope and relief in vast amounts.
As a parent, I am hugely interested in learning new ways of helping my children to be better equipped; armed with life skills so that they can better cope with stress, for instance, and navigate their way through an increasingly online and demanding world.
What can we do?
Prevention is obviously better than cure.
If I can help spare my child the loneliness and confusion of mental health problems in youth, then that would be incredible.
Being real about it all, I envisage them, as I do anyone else in this world, being susceptible to mental health challenges at some point in their lives.
Metal health does not discriminate.
My only hope if that should happen is that they know I am here, and that there is help for them, if they need it. That recovery is possible.
Having gone through, and by continuing to work on the process of mental wellbeing myself, as well as having worked with scores of people on their own recovery journeys, I believe that protective factors for young people must include knowledge of healthy strategies for stress management, such as: mindfulness, exercise, and engagement in healthy and enjoyable hobbies. As well as being able to express their true feelings as they arise, and not getting into the habit of bottling things up.
Like-wise with drinking, smoking, shopping, over-eating or not eating, addictions, over using social media and playing computer games non-stop.
I also believe having someone else to turn to, in addition to any parents or guardians, is a wonderful and invaluable thing.
Parents must be approachable, they must try to listen and not lecture. But quite frankly it’s hard being a parent and getting it right all the time, so a relative, teacher or family friend that can be trusted, too, is a key component to knowing that there is somebody to turn to. Someone who can help. It takes a village, you know?
So, to create that village, that community of support, perhaps we need investment for more mental health professionals in schools? Not only to provide teachers with support and training, but to have an actual, physical presence of a mental health specialisation, to give direct support to children and young people when they need it during the day. After all, school is where they spend most of their childhood lives.
It starts at home
Crucially, though, it’s home-life that has the biggest influence over children.
The hormones that are released during pregnancy, but in particular the levels of cortisol that the growing baby is exposed to in the womb, can have a detrimental effect on its further development.
Then, as well as the more innate and biological influences, there’s the environmental one: the effects of life on the child as he or she grows up.
So, how can that influence be for the better?
It’s scarily challenging, but it’s also pretty straightforward, too.
In pregnancy, women must try to be as calm and as centred as possible. Society must continue to support pregnant women and to listen to them.
As a mother, and with the mental health of my children in mind, I ask myself the following questions:
How do I look after my own mental health?
How do I show the children that I value my mental health and look after myself?
How do I show that I value their mental health, too, and that I will not trivialise their feelings?
How do I handle stress?
How do I cope in bad times?
What are my behaviours?
Do I reach for a glass of wine or go and practice yoga?
Do I comfort eat, do I moan, do I dramatise it all beyond necessity?
How do I interact with and react to this world?
How can I model proactive, protective factors, such as limiting screen-time and the healthy use of social media?
Do I, when I feel angry (and it’s ok to be angry), lose my temper or do I ask for 5 minutes outside to fully breathe and calm myself down?
These sorts of things are all fundamentally linked to how we nurture, not only our own mental health, but that of our precious children.
Today, on World Mental Health Day, as a mother, I’m looking within.
Finding out who I needed when I was younger? And shining my spotlight on the ways that I, by the many ways that I look after myself, will demonstrate to them how they can do the same.
Let’s talk about this stuff today.
Whether at home, on the phone with a friend or out on the school-run.
Ask people how they are? How their children are?
Break it open.
We and our children all deserve it.
For more information, and as well as the links in this blog, check out Mental Health First Aid England or the work of The Mental Health Foundation for some great tips and conversation starters.