Everybody faces difficulties with their mental health at some time in life –unhappiness and anxiety, unexpected bereavement or trauma: any of these can cause us to spiral down if we feel particularly alone or unsupported. Often the simplest early solution – the best way to lift the lid off the pressure cooker – is a conversation with someone you trust.
In a primary school that Place2Be is in, a parent regularly stayed behind at the school gates long after her child had gone into school, staring hard at the head teacher’s office window. After a few days, a teaching assistant who knew her slipped out for a chat. She was at her wits’ end, she said. Her husband of 15 years had gone off with someone else leaving her to look after her two girls, eight and 13. She just didn’t know what to do – financially or emotionally.
This helped the school make sense of her eight-year-old’s dramatic change in behaviour, moving suddenly from friendly and co-operative to rude and disruptive. And that straightforward conversation enabled the teaching assistant to steer the mother in the direction of some help: Citizen’s Advice for the financial and separation issues: Place2Be for counselling for her and her daughter. On the day of the mother’s first appointment, she brought her elder daughter with her. “I had to,” she said. “She’s off school and doesn’t want to be left alone in the house.”
A room was duly found for the girl to wait in. She was completely different from her sister, whose feelings were spread out there for all to see. This 13-year-old hadn’t a hair out of place, was as well presented and as shiny as it was possible to be, and was totally buttoned up. A teacher who had known her when she had been at the school, passed by.
“How are you?” she asked
“Fine. All good,” came the reply.
The teacher smelt a rat. She knew the sister. She knew that things were not so good. So she sat down and made time for a longer conversation.
Gradually the girl opened up. She relaxed, she cried a little, and in stretching her arms, she revealed the scratches and cuts around her wrists. Where her mother had been indirectly looking for help, and her sister had been dramatically acting out her distress, this 13-year-old had been turning in on herself, self-harming.
That dad had gone was (somehow) her fault. This conversation – and the willingness to have such a conversation – meant that appropriate help could also be found for her.
Conversations like this are important, and we can never be sure what they will turn up. But it is vital to realise, especially when distressing issues are spoken about, that it is not incumbent on you to be the expert, or to offer any advice or solutions. Listening is in itself a huge contribution, and there is considerable professional help around that people can be guided towards, if needed.
Here are some top tips for parents and carers on starting a conversation about mental health with children: Try setting aside time to be with your child one-to-one, when you can commit to putting other worries to one side and actively listen to them and their feelings. Enjoying a quiet activity together can make it easier to talk to your child without it feeling like an interrogation. Through play, children learn about themselves, their environment, people and the world around them. Creative activities such as arts or crafts can be a wonderful way to bond with your child using materials you have around the house. While you are being creative together, you can encourage them to tell their story and talk through what they’re doing.
As parents, we are constant role models, so it’s important to think about your own behaviour and how you deal with emotions such as anger and frustration in front of your children. This can influence how they behave and construct their own conversations about their mental health.
Place2Be is one of eight Heads Together partner charities, the Charity of the Year for the London Marathon on 23 April.
Spearheaded by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, Heads Together and the #OktoSay campaign aims to raise awareness of the power of conversations in helping people to open up and get support for mental health issues.
Jonathan Wood is the national manager for Scotland at Place2Be. Some of the details in this article have been changed to protect anonymity.