Children's Mental Health

Growing up is never any easy time and for some children there are things which can trigger mental ill health. This can be seen in many different ways, however children, as with adults experiencing similar issues, can feel stigmatised and unable to approach people for help.

Mental health is a subject that many of us find difficult to discuss, primarily because of a fear of saying the wrong thing and making matters worse.  Mental ill health is however a prevalent issue, with it being estimated that around 1 in 6 children will experience some form of mental ill health at some point in their childhood.  If you think about the place that you work in, this could mean that there are a lot of children and young people who may experience some form of difficulty around mental health, and research suggests this number is increasing.  As with adults, the reasons behind a child’s mental ill health can be varied, and whilst some children and young people do self-harm or contemplate taking their own lives, this is not the case for everyone.

It is therefore important that we do not turn a blind eye and hope it all goes away.  Stigma is a significant issue when suffering from mental health ill health and so it is important that we lead by example and that we also ensure that when working with individuals or groups of children and young people we educate them about mental ill health and how to help friends who may be experiencing problems.  As per the title of our in-depth safeguarding insight on children and young people’s mental health, knowledge dispels fear (and therefore reduces stigma).

Definition of mental health

Mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. It is an integral component of health and well-being that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape the world we live in. Mental health is a basic human right.

World Health Organisation

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What helps good mental health?

For children to remain mentally well they need:

  • good physical health (including good diet and regular exercise).
  • to be able to explore and develop interests (through their environment, play and interaction with others).
  • to feel part of a family (feeling as though they belong, get along with others, are loved, valued and safe).
  • to be supported to learn, be optimistic and feel that they have a say.
  • to feel part of a community (e.g. school / nursery / etc.).
  • to be supported to cope when things do not go well.
  • to be supported to learn how to problem solve.
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As with all situations there are certain factors that may increase the risks of poor mental health:

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How can we support?

  • Talk with the child or young person – talking is often key.  It may be that the initial conversation is nothing to do with their mental health and instead is more general, but this will build up trust and understanding.
  • Identify places where the child or young person can find appropriate support material to go over in their own time at their own pace.
  • Encourage a healthy lifestyle (e.g. nutrition and exercise).
  • Help the child or young person understand what they are feeling – for example everyone has fears and worries about things and part of growing up is learning how to deal with these.
  • Get support for yourself – you don’t need to know all the answers, however you do need to be sure that there is nothing further that can be done.
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Starting difficult conversations

If you are worried about a young person, try to get them to talk to you.  Often they will want to talk but will not speak until someone asks how they are.

  • As when dealing with disclosures, use open ended questions.  For example “Tell me about…”, “How do you feel about …” and “What happened about …”;
  • Repeat back what they say to show that you understand;
  • Do not try to solve the problem – that will come over time.  Initially focus on their feelings – this can be of more help and show that you care;
  • Try to let them make their own decisions – they are more likely to stick to what they decide than to follow what they are told to do by someone else;
  • Be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to fix everything or dish out advice – let them lead the conversation and identify what they want to happen;
  • Remember you do not need to be an expert to be able to help;
  • Remember that everyone is different – an approach that worked with one young person may not work with another.

(adapted from the Samaritans advice page)

What about self harm and suicide?

The majority of children and young people do not get to a point where they are self-harming or considering taking their own life.  For those that do it is important that this is recognised and appropriate support is put in place. Contrary to common belief, self-harm is not attention seeking, often it is a coping mechanism to stop the young person finding that things are getting out of control – the Samaritans have a handout looking at common myths around self-harm. If a child or young person is expressing suicidal ideation then it is important that you get help and support immediately.

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  • Responding to critical incidents in educational communities

    These resources from the UK Trauma Council can help educational settings respond to critical incidents that have a traumatic impact on their educational community. The resources are designed to help educational settings create an environment to promote recovery and contains five principles to guide response and enable recovery in the immediate aftermath of a critical incident and in the longer term.

  • Trauma Bereavement

    These resources from the UK Trauma Council will give education staff and practitioners the knowledge and skills they need to identify, help and support children and young people who have experienced a traumatic bereavement.

  • Anti-racism and mental health in schools

    The Anna Freud Centre has a collection of podcasts, case studies, and policy templates about racism, its impact on child mental health and what education settings can do to address it.

  • Knowledge dispels fear – children and young people’s mental health

    This is part of our safeguarding insights section. Our aim is to provide you with a broader understanding of a specific topic through a researched and referenced article that contributes towards your professional development and ensures that you can support your staff accordingly.

  • We All Have Mental Health: Animation & Teacher Toolkit

    The ‘We all have mental health’ animation and accompanying teacher toolkit is aimed at Key stage 3 secondary school pupils (Years 7 -9). They were developed in collaboration with young people, teachers and mental health experts.

  • The Anna Freud Centre advice for parents and carers

    Free digital resources (posters, animations, leaflets) developed by Centre staff to provide advice and guidance to parents and carers who may be supporting a child or young person who may be struggling with poor mental health.

  • Mentally healthy schools

    Mentally Healthy Schools brings together quality-assured information, advice and resources to help primary schools understand and promote children’s mental health and wellbeing. Our aim is to increase staff awareness, knowledge and confidence to help you support your pupils.

  • The truth about self-harm: for young people and their friends and families

    Self-harm is a very common problem, and many people are struggling to deal with it. Perhaps you feel or have felt the need to harm yourself. Perhaps you have been self-harming for some time. Or maybe you have a friend, brother or sister or a son or daughter who is self-harming, or someone you teach or work with is doing it and you need to know more.
    This booklet is for anyone who wants to understand self-harm among young people – why it happens, how to deal with it, and how to recover from what can become a very destructive cycle.

  • Mental health and behaviour in schools

    This advice aims to help schools to support pupils whose mental health problems manifest themselves in behaviour. Schools have an important role to play in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of children by developing whole school approaches tailored to their particular needs, as well as considering the needs of individual pupils.

  • Schools in Mind

    Schools in Mind is a free network for school staff and allied professionals which shares practical, academic and clinical expertise regarding the wellbeing and mental health issues that affect schools.

  • Social media, young people and mental health

    This briefing paper offers a brief scan of the latest evidence on the impact of social media on young people’s wellbeing, both negative and positive. It seeks to understand what constitutes ‘problematic’ social media use, including addiction, jealousy and ‘fear of missing out’, as well as looking at how social media can positively impact on wellbeing.

  • Papyrus resources

    Set of resources which can be used when working with children and young people about suicide, including how to start conversations about suicide, and templates for safety plans.

  • Promoting children and young people’s emotional health and wellbeing

    Guidance for head teachers and college principals on the 8 principles for promoting emotional health and wellbeing in schools and colleges.

  • Making the grade: How education shapes young people’s mental health

    Making the grade highlights the profound effects that educational settings can have on young people’s mental health and wellbeing. It identifies the way that timetables, lessons and cultures can make schools stressful places, especially for young people facing the greatest adversity. But they can also be good for mental health – for example through teaching life skills and creative subjects.

  • Building Suicide-Safer Schools and Colleges: A Guide for Teachers and Staff

    PAPYRUS has developed a guide to suicide prevention, intervention and postvention in schools and colleges, aimed specifically at teachers as well as school or college staff. It aims to equip teachers with the skills and knowledge necessary to support schoolchildren who may be having suicidal thoughts.

  • Taking CARE To Promote Mental Health in Schools and Colleges

    A resource developed by the Anna Freud Foundation, the CARE animation is a short animation for all school and college staff that recognises the importance of supporting children and young people’s mental health in schools and colleges, and offers a simple principle for staff to remember; CARE. (Curious, Approachable, Refer, Empathy).

  • Mental Health Support: Absolutely Not

    If you know a child or young person who may need mental health support, signpost them to this video talk from the Anna Freud NCCF and the UK Trauma Council. The video offers a child’s perspective of getting help following a traumatic experience. It covers how it can feel hard to talk about getting mental health support, why if feels difficult, and how it can be helpful.

  • Uniquely Me: A Parent’s Guide to Building Body Confidence

    At Dove, we’re on a mission to encourage young people to think positively about the way they look, enabling them to reach their full potential in life. Over half of girls around the world do not have high body confidence, and eight out of 10 of them avoid a range of everyday activities – from seeing friends and family to getting involved in sports teams or clubs – because they feel bad about the way they look.

  • We all have mental health

    This animation and teacher toolkit from the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families is designed for secondary school pupils in years 7 – 9. It covers the language we use to talk about mental health, understanding self-care and advice about where to go to when seeking support.

  • Addressing School Avoidance

    This resource from the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families looks at some of the reasons behind school avoidance and aims to help educational staff address the issue.

    You can also watch this video which provides practical ways that educational staff can help students by creating a space that allows them to feel both physically and emotionally safe.

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  • Training resources for Safeguarding Leads to use in team meetings;
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  • Quizzes to test staff understanding.
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