Mental health awareness week: Why we should teach children about mental health

With more young people being diagnosed with mental illnesses than ever before, should we be doing more to address mental health with children?

The latest figures from the NHS show that one in eight people under the age of 19 have a mental health disorder. One in 10 children of primary school age (between five and 10 years old) have a mental health issue, as does one in 18 preschoolers (children between the ages of two and four). But how do we teach young children about their mental health in the hope of reducing issues in later life?

Place2Be, a children’s mental health charity, found that 56 per cent of children say that they worry all the time about at least one thing – school life, home life, themselves, their friends.

“At least three children in every class have a diagnosable mental health issue, and many more worry about everyday concerns from exams to family life,” Catherine Roche, chief executive of Place2Be said. The charity provides mental health support in 294 primary and secondary schools across England, Scotland and Wales. They work with 142,000 children and young people to educate them about mental health.

Place2Be also trains school leaders, teachers and staff in supporting children and young people with mental health issues. Last year they worked with 232 schools to provide a Mental Health Champions programme where they audit the school and identify areas for improvement in terms of supporting students’ mental health. The charity then helps the school to come up with a plan for improving their offering.

YoungMinds is another charity working to raise awareness of and campaign for change when it comes to children and young people’s mental health. They also run a helpline for parents who are concerned about their children's wellbeing.

“Children can face a huge range of pressures from a young age, including school stress, bullying, worries about how they look, problems with friends and a lack of access to help if they’re struggling to cope,” Steph Learmonth, parent helpline team leader at YoungMinds, says.

“Having open conversations with children about how they’re feeling can help to ensure that they feel safe and supported if any issues arise, and know who to turn to should they begin to struggle. Our #Take20 Parents Hub has lots of advice for how to start difficult conversations and what to do next.”

Charlotte Moncrieff, founder of Twenty Mile Club and an ambassador for mental health research charity MQ, recognised the importance of talking to younger children about their mental health and teaching them how to handle their emotions. She wrote a book aimed at children called Big Boys Cry, which seeks to break down the barriers boys might face in showing emotion and help parents and teachers to start these conversations.

“With over half of teenage boys feeling like they can't share their mental health problems with their fathers in the UK, it raises the question ‘are we doing enough to change society's ideologies of what it means to be a man before it’s too late?’ By too late, I mean by the time both boys and girls have hit puberty and the pressure to be seen a certain way has kicked in,” Moncrieff says.

“I am a big believer in prevention over cure when it comes to mental health and with suicide being one of the biggest killers of males between the ages of 18 and 24, we need to start implementing interventions surrounding mental health far earlier, to ensure the statistics of future generations isn't nearly as damning.”

Moncrieff’s book celebrates the fact that boys can cry, no matter how big or old they are. “It doesn’t make them ‘silly’ and (just as importantly) ‘crying isn’t just for girls’,” she explains.

“I did a reading at a school in Balham a few weeks ago to children between the ages of seven and nine. Before I read the book to them, I asked them quite simply 'Who is more likely to cry girls or boys?' and they all shouted 'GIRLS!' Already (shockingly!) stereotypes had rubbed off on them, to think that all boys should be tough and they weren't even 10. After reading the book and playing interactive games about expressing emotion, I then asked them again who was more likely to cry and I was overjoyed that they all shouted a jubilant 'All of us!'”

Moncrieff adds: “We need to start having conversations about mental health far earlier with children, with a focus on being proactive before, rather than only after, something has taken place.”

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