Practical tips for families and friends of young people experiencing mental health problems
Would you know how to support young people experiencing mental health problems? I’ve just watched a short video on Twitter where a young boy of 11 spoke about his mental health and how the pandemic has led to depression. To be honest, I really hadn’t thought about people as young as that having mental health problems.
Young Gary told how the pandemic restrictions made him feel angry towards the world and everyone in it. He spoke of not being able to play football with his friends, or have them stay over, and how the constant isolation made him think too much. He also mentioned having bad thoughts and being unable to talk about them because he felt he would be judged.
However, eventually and fortunately, Gary was able to open up to his parents and they sought advice from their GP. He was able to refer the family to online counselling and they received the help he needed — quickly. While he’s not out of the woods yet, Gary feels confident that therapy is helpful and he’ll continue to accept this support.
While Gary is extremely young, many young people of all ages are feeling the negative effects of the pandemic. It’s likely that many of them either don’t know how to articulate their feelings, are unable to open up to their parents, families or friends, or wouldn’t know where to get help.
Did you know
Not all mental illnesses are visible
Not all mental illnesses are obvious in the beginning, but you may notice some changes in a young person, such as:
- lack of self-care, looking bedraggled, unkempt, or uncared for
- loss of interest in activities/hobbies they used to enjoy. Okay, we have lockdown but hopefully they have interests at home that they can continue
- mood swings, angry outbursts, spiteful towards and bullying siblings, lashing out verbally or physically
- being disruptive or even destructive, kicking, smashing or damaging things
- shouting, swearing and being very argumentative
- change in eating habits, either not eating or eating too much
- stealing either at home or in shops
- becoming secretive, isolated, withdrawn
- change in sleeping pattern, like too much, too little, or not at all
- smoking cigarettes, using illegal substances, or drinking alcohol — which may lead to changes in mood
While this list may be long, there are other changes you might notice and want to keep an eye on.
Family and friends can support young people with mental health problems
If you know a young person who’s experiencing mental health difficulties, you may find the following tips useful:
- encourage them to talk to you or another family member or friend. Ask them open-ended questions like “Tell me about your day.” or “How did you feel when ……….?” to get a conversation going. Asking closed questions like “Did you have a good time?” will only receive a “yes” or “no” answer.
- make yourself available to listen to your young ones, even if you have to schedule a time, and stick to it. Let them know they will be heard. You’ll lose their trust if you don’t follow through.
- talk to your youngsters about current affairs such as the pandemic and lockdown. Be as open as possible. Ask their opinions, and respect their views, however much they differ from yours (apart from anything illegal obviously).
- ensure they always have the means to contact you, say if you work or go out, let them know where you are and when you’ll be back.
- have a designated person they can contact if they cannot get hold of you
- if you must leave them alone, make sure they have food and drinks available to them. Their favourite, but healthy, food always helps 😉
- keep the home warm and welcoming with electricity and hot water available to them.
- help them maintain their living space, and to keep it clean, like changing their bedding together or helping sort out their drawers (if they’ll allow it).
- help and support them in good grooming like teeth brushing, clean nails, and haircuts.
- arrange and be aware of appointments, say with the dentist or their pastor.
- monitor their intake of any prescribed medication-taking.
- provide appropriate clothing for the changing seasons.
- always remember their birthdays and other anniversaries such as “the date his dog died” or the date school results are due. Celebrate (or commiserate) with them, however simple.
- where possible and within reason, let them have access to their laptops, phones, video games, arts and crafts etc
- have them involved in family decision-making, like rules. and the consequences of not following them.
- reinforce the need for physical activity and go with them on outdoor walks, where possible.
- don’t just tell, show your love for them. Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady said “Don’t tell me. Just show me how much you love me.”
- encourage your youngsters to write down things that are bothering them. Perhaps let them have a journal and if they wish to keep it private, then you mustn’t sneak a look.
Find out how your youngsters are feeling
Your youngster’s behaviour is a communication about how they’re feeling. If they’re behaving differently or acting out, it might be useful to think of an iceberg. The changing behaviour is the tip, but there’s likely to be a whole range of emotions hidden under the surface.
By regularly opening up conversations with your youngsters, you can find out more about how they’re feeling and what’s going on for them. Effective listening skills will help them open up further. Don’t interrupt, don’t judge and don’t assume you know what they’re going to say. Often, all they want — is to be heard.
Young people need to feel safe
I often remember my youngest son when he was about 11 and we were driving home from school, “Mummy, I like it when you tell me what to do. It makes me feel safe and I know you care about me.”
Okay, just making them feel safe isn’t the answer to everything. But it certainly helps. Let them know it’s safe to talk about their emotions. In fact, encourage them to talk about their thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative.
Explain that it’s normal to have negative thoughts and feelings sometimes, particularly during times like the pandemic and lockdown. My wee old mum used to say “Ye cannae get sent to the jail for your thoughts.”
Teach youngsters different ways to deal with their emotions and if you’re unsure how to do this, seek professional help.
Over to you
Has any of this been useful, and do you have any more tips you think I could add? Do you know of any young people who experience mental health problems and need support? I’m happy to let you have details of professionals who can help.
For those of you who know me and my blog, I’ve stayed away for almost three months, just resting, and now I’m back. Not with a bang, unfortunately, more of a whimper. But at least now, I’ve found the will to continue writing.
I’ve mentioned many times — mental health knows know boundaries, and it can attack at any time. I’m only too aware. But I’m feeling better and look forward to catching up with my blogging friends.