Andrew Phillips: How do we talk to young people about their mental health?
Nathan Jones: I think it’s a tough one - teenagers don’t always want to talk. You’ve got to get them at the right moment - that’s a really practical element.
Sometimes young people don’t want to talk because they’re naturally detaching from their parents and becoming more independent, but research has shown that young people often do want to talk - so the best approach is to be gentle, to make the offer, to raise awareness of the issues and reach out; ask how they are doing. They may say: “I’m fine” and walk off, but just make yourself available.
For example, you could say to your son or daughter today: “I was listening to a programme on Premier today and I heard them talking about young people’s mental health. How are you finding it?” Approach in a lighthearted may, such as reflecting on what you’ve seen or read, and bring it around rather than a “sit down on the sofa” and make it feel formal approach.
But ask the question. Be direct and ask them how they are doing, reassure them that you are there for them if they want it. The other thing you could do is make the offer of other places they can go to talk as well but be bold. If they don’t want to talk at that moment, that’s OK, they might come back to it.
AP: I wanted to ask about social media and young people - because it’s good and bad, right?
NJ: On one hand, social media at the moment is really important to young people because it keeps them connected - and connectivity is really important when you’re feeling lonely or isolated. There has been some news come out about the effects of exposure to lots of negative news, and so some of the advice for children and young people is to reduce the amount of news that you are watching - particularly if you are family, watching it once a day and not exposing them to too much.
Social media has lots of different issues - it can be both positive and helpful but it can be negative, particularly if they are on it very late at night which can impact their sleep. It’s a mixed thing, but there is information out there suggesting we should reduce their exposure.
AP: Young people are worrying about a lot - from school to relationships…
NJ: Of course, as I mentioned earlier they’ve come into lockdown already with pre-existing poor mental health, which maybe means that some children who are accessing help with counsellors or mental health workers is either gone completely or it’s at least been diminished or they can’t access it. Plus, young people will have less access to their support systems from before such as school or youth clubs, peer groups, friends and family. All those provide a really supportive environment for young people.
Young people are reporting being lonely - being stuck at home all day on their own, which isn’t helped by negative news they have been hearing. They have disruption to their schooling and they may be thinking: “Will I loose my job?” or “Will I go to university?”. Just some of the transitions and all the preparations and the fear about that…
For some young people they’re living in poverty, which may have increased in this time - or it may have become something they’ve faced because the family has lost employment. Parents may be struggling with mental health at home, too - and children are living in this environment and are trapped in it. That’s difficult. There will be many tens of thousands of young people in this country who will be experiencing loss.
The list goes on and on - and that’s on top of being a teenager and self-esteem and the difficulties they were having before.
AP: It all sounds so hard to deal with!
NJ: For some of them it is, but it’s important to remember that some young people are well as well. Some have developed good coping systems and have support around them and are doing well. But for those who aren’t, I think it’s not only difficult because it’s an added pressure, it’s even worse because the support (and informal support of having people around you) is gone. A lot of young people don’t realise that just by going to school is support.
AP: Let’s talk about the help we can give young people.
NJ: What I always encourage people to do is to take it seriously. It’s very easy to think: “Oh, well they’re alright. They’ll be fine”. Don’t assume whether a young person is or isn’t doing well. Some young people who you may think would cope might not. It’s important to take it seriously.
I would also encourage to go and visit the Young Minds website as they have pages of information that they have put up around COVID-19 and lockdown about the issues young people may be facing, the signs to look out for and lots of practical tips for young people around self care and studying at home and routine.
Reach out, as we mentioned. Check up on your children and grand-children - ask how they are finding things, even if they don’t always respond. Just asking is important. Keep connected to them, say hello and don’t leave them in their room alone all day - and help them to connect to others using social media. Provide clear information about what is happening, if they are worried and point them to other services like the Young Minds website.
If you are a youth worker, post positively about what’s going on. Share mental health charities on your social media feeds so they can see where they can access help. You may want to reach out to families to offer practical support, particularly if you know they need help.
Keep routines or create new ones. Routine is really supportive to young people and there’s a danger, in this space, not to do that. Reassure young people that the feelings they are feeling is normal and to be expected. They’re not odd or strange or a failure and that for many of them, it will just pass. Reassure them if it keeps getting worse, you will get them some support and help.
If you are really worrying about a young person, parents can ring the Young Minds helpline, you could call your GP and have a chat, young people themselves can get involved with chat services online, and if it’s really urgent and you’re really worried, call 111 or, if they are really distressed, ring 999.
As adults, one of the best things we can do is look after our own minds. If you are well, that will help your young person as well.
Nathan Jones is the founder of TalkThrough, a mental health charity. This interview was originally aired on Premier Christian Radio.