As schools, colleges and universities get ready to welcome back students, new data reveals almost half (46%) of 11-18-year-olds in the West Midlands are worried that returning to education will impact their mental health. The survey, commissioned by the mental health anti-stigma campaign, Time to Change, showed that many young people are harbouring concerns about returning to education, but only 37% of parents in the West Midlands have spoken to their child about their mental health since the start of the summer break.
Time to Change, which is run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, is urging all parents to act now and start a conversation about mental health, even if they do not suspect their child is struggling. The campaign says broaching the topic of mental health before school or college begins, will show your child you are open and ready to support them if they need it now or later.
Encouragingly, just under three quarters (74%) of parents in the West Midlands said they would know how to spot the signs if their child was struggling but the fact that so few have broached the topic suggests less confidence around how to manage a conversation about mental health.
Time to Change has compiled some tips to help parents start the conversation.
1. Normalise it: 1 in 8 young people have a mental health problem, and many more are worried about their mental health.
2. Check in: Your child’s feelings may change as the weeks and days go by and they adjust to the new normal.
3. It doesn’t need to be about them: Talking about mental health in general might help open a dialogue. For example, ‘It can be stressful dealing with change can’t it?’.
4. Talk side by side: You don’t need to have a face-to-face sit down chat. Lots of young people might feel awkward about having a conversation, so take the pressure off by doing it while walking, cooking or driving.
5. Make it relevant: Some young people might not think mental health is relevant to them. But we all have mental health, which can range from good to poor. These are unsettling times and it’s important to discuss mental health even if your child isn’t in need of support
Jo Loughran, director of Time to Change, said “One in eight young people will experience a mental health problem in any given year. However, at this moment in time, many more are concerned about their mental health – regardless of whether they have a diagnosis. It’s great that parents feel able to spot the signs, but we want to reassure them that having a conversation with their child won’t make them more susceptible to mental health problems or create issues that aren’t already there. It simply means they will know you are open to the topic, willing to listen and ready to support them if and when they need it.”
Adam Howard, 20, experienced depression and anxiety throughout school and is now preparing to start University in September. He said “It wasn’t until I was in sixth form that I opened up to my mum about my mental health. She noticed my behaviour was affecting my everyday life, including college, and we had a conversation about the appropriate steps we could take going forward to find a solution. Sometimes I find it difficult to start the conversation because I don’t want to cause her more stress, but when I can I try to speak to her about how I’m feeling. As I’m preparing to go to University I’ve told her that there’s a lot to take in right now, as my move in date is fast approaching, but I know we need to chat as it’s not good to suffer in silence.”
Paula Fisher, Adam’s mum, said “I noticed that Adam had become quiet and he started to isolate himself, staying in his room more than usual. He was also irritable, getting upset about things which wouldn’t normally bother him so much. When I saw his behaviour change and he stopped wanting to go to school I assumed he was being bullied. I started talking to him about it, encouraging him to share his thoughts. That’s when he told me he was feeling anxious about going to school.
“My advice to other parents would be to take little steps. Don’t pressure them into talking or assume you know what is wrong. Let them know if they want to talk you’re there to listen. They will come to you gradually once they know that door is open and they’re ready to talk. Ultimately, it’s just about letting them know you’re in this together and they’re not alone.”
As schools and colleges reopen, Time to Change will be working with education providers to help students and their parents learn more about mental health. Participating schools and colleges will be provided with lesson plans, expert guidance, conversation starters and films to help them deliver sessions that open up the conversation about mental health; encouraging students to be aware of their own wellbeing as well as supportive of classmates who might be struggling.