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From royalty to reality: the need to embed emotional wellbeing from an early age

Nerys Anthony, Director Young People Health & Wellbeing, discusses the need for an open and positive dialogue about mental health as early in childhood as possible.

11 May 2017

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It’s higher profile than ever brought to prominence by newspaper front pages, hashtags and celebrity spokespeople. Last month, thousands of people ran the London Marathon under the banner of Heads Together, the mental health campaign backed by Princes William and Harry.

But while column inches and trending hashtags are welcome, they are nothing without concrete, hard action. If we want today’s young people to grow up strong and well, we must build emotional resilience in them from a young age. We must give young people prevention and coping strategies, rather than trying to mop up the damage when they end up in hospital, in prison, on the streets.

Culture of openness

But it’s not simply a case of providing better, more targeted support for those children affected by ill mental health; it’s about creating a culture of openness and promoting a positive dialogue about emotional wellbeing in society as a whole, starting from a very young age.

We can say this with some certainty because we’ve been involved in public service delivery for 200 years. At Catch22 we deliver emotional health and wellbeing support across the social welfare cycle, including in schools, with looked after children, victims of sexual exploitation, young people with special educational needs and those at risk of or already involved with serious youth violence and the criminal justice system.

This means that we see the direct consequences of children who slip under the radar, untreated or only referred to clinical mental health services when at crisis point. We see these children in our substance misuse services, in our missing from home services and in our youth justice services. Prison is where the consequences of untreated mental health issues are laid bare; 2016 saw the highest number of suicides in custody ever recorded. But we also see countless opportunities to get interventions right all the way through a child’s life.

As early in childhood as possible

We have a responsibility to get this right as early on in childhood as possible, to support children to be all they can and want to be. We believe that schools are integral to promoting and supporting emotional wellbeing. The government’s commitment to making Physical, Social and Health Education (PSHE) compulsory in schools is welcomed and is a step in the right direction but it’s not sufficient to tackle the rise in young people struggling with ill mental health. The Health and Education Select Committees last week published their report which states that the ‘promotion of emotional wellbeing cannot be confined to PSHE lessons.’

Children’s mental health needs to be high up on the agenda and monitored just as physical health is. The government’s plan to tackle childhood obesity includes a strategy for schools to provide 30 minutes of physical exercise a day. Similarly, mental health needs to be written and integrated into the curriculum. The assessment of emotional health should be included within the Ofsted inspection framework. If every child starting school had a review of their social and emotional engagement, any immediate or predicted needs could be addressed and then built on when there is an identifiable risk factor.

Embedding emotional health and wellbeing within the curriculum and across the whole school community will both reduce stigma and the long term strain on mental health provision and wider public services, such as Accident & Emergency services in the NHS. By giving young people the ability to recognise positive emotional wellbeing and the signs and symptoms of problems early on, we will create a resilient and empathetic generation of young people with the toolkit to support themselves and their peers.

Joined up working

To adopt the ‘whole-school’ approach that MPs in the Health and Education Select Committees are calling for, we need to focus on early intervention and prevention. This will only be possible if we are able to build trusted, one-on-one relationships with children allowing them to share thoughts, feelings and concerns, and if we call on the expertise of wider agencies, services and people in the community.

But we cannot expect the additional workload to fall solely on teachers. Parents, families, carers, teaching support staff, youth workers, social workers and family support workers must all come together to ensure that mental health needs of young people are met.

Community based services

Alternatives to clinical services, rooted in the community and offering lower level support, have an important role to play too. We have first-hand experience of delivering and designing wellbeing services that are flexible and responsive to the needs of the young people they support. We co-design these services with young people and provide support in places they feel comfortable.

We need to make sure young people realise from a young age that “mental health” is not a challenge in and of itself. Rather, every person exists on a continuum of mental health, from very healthy to less healthy. Where they are on the continuum must be monitored constantly. This should not stop at 18 years; we need to have a continual, open dialogue about our mental health to recognise challenges and be ready to support in flexible and responsive ways when necessary.