Why Aren’t We Talking About Children’s Mental Health?

Written on 02/01/2024
Sophie Kirk

Whenever the topic of children’s mental health comes up, it’s often an awkward turn in the conversation. It’s an uncomfortable topic, and not something most people really want to think about. Especially if the conversation is about younger children. Somehow, we’re all aware that older children and teenagers experience mental health problems, but we choose to believe that younger children don’t experience the same things. Despite the fact that 1 in 6 young peoplestarting from aged 5 up to age 16 will experience mental health problems, and that prior to Covid-19, suicide was one of the leading causes of death for young people age 10 to 19 years old.

If that’s not enough, study after study has revealed the same thing – young people in the UK have higher mental health needs than ever, and our current system is failing them. So what can be done to help?

The State Of Youth Mental Health

Often, children’s mental health problems are unintentionally brushed under the rug by adults. They’re told to not get angry, cause a scene or behave overly happy, upset or frustrated in public. They aren’t given any education in how to understand and manage their thoughts and feelings, which means it’s very easy for them to feel like having and expressing emotions is shameful and not wanted. To add to this there’s a wealth of false information online, and without the right tools to manage their feelings things can easily spiral out of control – sometimes for years- before it’s detected. 

Just to highlight how much of an issue mental health can be for young children, and how serious the situation is, here are some of the statistics for you:

  • 50% of all mental health problems have already started by age 14.
  • One in five children in a classroom are likely to have a mental health problem. That’s 6 children per class in the UK who need support.
  • School absence rates are significantly higher in children aged 7 to 16 with mental health problems.
  • When asked, children cited mental health issues as the second biggest thing that stopped them being able to achieve their ambitions.
  • 39.2% of 6 to 16-year-old children have experienced a deterioration in their mental health since 2017.
  • 34% of those who got referred to the NHS for mental health issues aren’t accepted into treatment. 
  • Suicide was the leading cause of death for people between 5 and 34 in 2019.

Do you notice a trend here? The mental health problems our teenagers experience aren’t the product of adolescent brains, or a result of raging hormones. They’re the same struggles they have been experiencing from as early as 5 years old, and only when they are able to better advocate for themselves does our system start to take notice. Even then, the support they receive through our overburdened NHS is limited, with 76% of them saying their mental health deteriorated significantly while waiting for support from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

In other words, the demand for support has skyrocketed, but funding has stagnated. With less than 1% of the total NHS budget being spent on children and young people’s mental health services, there must be a better way to approach it.

Early Intervention 

In our opinion and experience, the key to not only supporting but preventing mental health issues in young people is to be proactive. Don’t wait for these young people to get access to false information online and let their mental health spiral out of control. Don’t teach them that we shouldn’t have emotions, or show them when we feel them (which is a common approach in parenting and education at the moment). Instead, equip them with the knowledge and tools to understand their own emotions and deal with them in a healthy way. Going all the way back to basics, and teaching preventative techniques to children as young as 4 years old. 

The aim is to normalise the use of these tools in everyday life from a young age. By instilling these techniques early – that it’s normal to meditate, or to use breathing techniques if you’re feeling stressed – we can reduce the stigma around proactive mental health activities and provide young people with the tools they need to thrive. After all, that’s our job as adults, and studies have shown that taking a preventative approach and early intervention in children’s mental health can make a significant difference.

We’ve found that, while many teens are still receptive to the ideas and techniques in their later years, you will find just as many who have made their mind up that such things are ‘dumb’ and that ‘meditation is a load of rubbish’. We’ve come across plenty of these in our time, and it’s a difficult cycle to break them out of. They are usually already struggling with poor mental health by this point, but they have been misinformed and disillusioned to the point that they push back against help. 

This is the cycle we need to break.

The Role Of Schools In Mental Health Discussion

One of the key things that stands out in all of the research and discussion around mental health is that the current NHS approach of ‘throw therapy at it’ just isn’t working. In the last 15 years of this tactic there has been a significant increase in mental health issues in young people and a decrease in their overall mental wellbeing, so something is obviously not right. As we mentioned above, early intervention is key in preventing mental health problems from even developing, which means we need to focus our efforts on where children from the age of 5 to 18 spend most of their time – in school.

Research from the University of Swansea highlights that, by improving children’s mental health literacy and reducing the stigma around mental health issues while they are young, schools can have a really positive impact on their student’s wellbeing. In the study, students given access to mental health resources and education showed improvements in nearly all areas, including mental health knowledge, better mental health behaviours, reduced mental health stigma and increased intentions to seek help for problems. So if we taught mental wellbeing skills in the same way we teach English, Maths and Science, we will see generations of more resilient, healthy children and teens, who will grow into emotionally mature adults with the ability to regulate their emotions and manage their mental health in a positive way.

At Melp Co, we firmly believe that children and young people deserve happiness, mental fitness and the opportunity to thrive. We work alongside schools to provide a range of services and resources that empower schools, colleges and even universities to build and implement mental health programs that will benefit their children. We take a tailored approach to mental wellbeing, with a commitment going beyond conventional mental health education. To find out more about our services or if you would like to support the work we do in schools click here, or get in touch with the team today.