Across Australia 580 000 children and adolescents, between 4-17 years of age, experience mental health problems each year 1. Too many families struggle through the crisis of not knowing what to do when their child expresses thoughts of self-harm, suicide or are unable to be kept safe due to behaviours caused by mental health issues.
Every day in my clinic, parents and carers are desperate for help and want guidance about how to make their child feel better, worry less and curb harmful externalising behaviours. Despite seeking professional advice and treatment for their child’s mental health problems, some families find themselves in the situation where they need to seek emergency treatment to keep their child safe. The number of children and adolescents presenting to emergency departments with mental health disorders are increasing 1.
Even children without a diagnosed mental health disorder are requiring professional intervention due to deteriorating mental health. Studies have found that in Australia, more children and teenagers are stressed than 10-20 years ago 2. Research findings of increased paediatric stress levels are correlating with parallel increases in adolescent substance-related disorders and impulse control disorders. These types of disorders are linked with high rates of self-harm, suicide and mental health disorders.
Parents and carers always express to me that they would do anything to prevent their child experiencing stress, mental anguish, or social isolation. So doctor, what on earth can we do as a parent or carer to overpower my child’s risk of mental health problems?…..
…………You can develop a Positive Mental Health Plan
When building your family’s Positive Mental Health Plan, focus on these three areas of action:
- Foster social inclusion
Be part of the school community, connect with your child, develop a friendship network; bullies and social rejection will have less impact if your child already has established positive relationships and sense of place in a community (e.g. school, family, neighbourhood, or cultural community).
- Increase your child’s tolerance and resilience
It’s never too early to learn self-care skills and develop a lifestyle that supports mental and physical health; ensure physical activity, fresh air and sun-light is included in the daily family schedule, learn meditation or relaxing breathing techniques together, find an activity (non-screen based!) that is soothing and calming or uplifting for your child to incorporate into the day.
- Offer opportunities for success and improved self-esteem
Every child has strengths and interests that drive motivation, find an opportunity for your child to experience reward following concerted effort in an area of interest, learning from mistakes and failure are important experiences to have in life so is the feeling of succeeding at something you are proud of and being recognised for it.
This is not a short weekend project to reduce risk, rather a way of structuring your family life. You may be isolated or have anxiety yourself, setting up this structure is likely to present challenges. Choose one of the areas of action and establish that part of the plan, once you feel like you have succeeded in that area, move on to another one until you have developed a solid Positive Mental Health Plan.
If these are new concepts for your family or you find that barriers to developing the plan present, seek a professional that you trust to guide your family regarding these three areas of action. Please consider discussing options for prevention at your next paediatric appointment.
For further basic information regarding mental health prevention in early childhood see Australian websites such as Kids Matter
- Hiscock H et al, Paediatric mental and physical health presentations to emergency departments, Victoria, 2008-15, MJA, 208 (8).
- Mission Australia Youth Survey 2017, www.missionaustralia.com.au/what-we-do/research-evaluation/youth-survey