Solutions: Recognising and mitigating early signs of mental health issues

Despite variations in how mental health issues manifest from child to child, the value of early discovery can't be underestimated

Despite variations in how mental health issues manifest from child to child, the value of early discovery can't be underestimated

8 Mar 2024, 11:39

Childhood and adolescent years can be difficult to navigate and even harder for children and young people coping with mental health issues. And with the continuing, unprecedented pressures they face, there is a growing need for professionals to recognise the early signs and put mitigation strategies in place where possible.

Early warnings

Recognising early signs of mental health disorders in children and young people could save a life and make a significant positive difference to their mental wellness. These can vary significantly from child to child, but there are common ones to look out.

They include sudden and significant mood and behaviour changes, unexpected poor academic behaviour and performance (usually indicating they are worrying about something else rather than focusing on their academic studies), changes in social habits (like who they play with in the playground and how, for example, or being less motivated for school and social opportunities), and sleeping problems or difficulty sleeping, which may be evident as tiredness in class.

These can manifest in many ways, but some early indicators might include sudden irritability, a change in the quality of their school work, becoming withdrawn or appearing sad or worried for a protracted period, changes in their eating habits and, of course, any evidence of self-harming.

First responders

Teachers are often the first to witness a problem, because disclosing at school can feel safer than doing so at home. You may not be certain you are interpreting signs correctly, but this is very much a case where it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you are concerned about a child’s or young person’s mental health, you should always take active steps to alleviate and mitigate their worries.

Talk now rather than later

Don’t wait for children to speak to you, if you feel as though the child or young person has a problem or needs to talk, initiate the conversation. If you are concerned about their behaviour, sit them down in a calming atmosphere and approach the topic with sensitivity.

Take them seriously

It’s important to listen and understand the value of what the child or young person has to say. Because they may not know how to articulate the emotions they’re feeling, it can be easy to underestimate the weight of their words and brush off what could be a cry for help. This can lead to the child feeling unheard and unsupported.

Encourage their interests

Interests can be a necessary outlet for children and young people. Whether that be creative, physical, or practical interests, if the activity is positive and safe it should be nourished.

Support and actively promote their favourite hobbies and show interest. They will begin to feel comfortable and be more open with you.

Normalise talking about emotions

Creating an open and honest environment surrounding emotions, feelings and communication is vital when safeguarding a child’s or young person’s mental health.

Discussing emotions and feelings regularly creates a positive communication culture and relationship around tough subjects. Once this is established, children and young people will feel more comfortable and willing to discuss what is troubling them.

Adults often get scared that they’re going to say the wrong thing or that they’re going to cause offence, but the worst strategy of all is to say nothing.

A culture of care

As the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. Remember that any problem shared with you becomes a burden for you too, and you will not be able to sustain supporting a child or young person coping with their mental health issues if you are struggling with your own.

Make time for self-care, and ensure you work with and through the designated professionals in and around your school to share the burden even further. Remember that other saying: It takes a village to raise a child.

As caregivers, we share responsibility for students’ mental health. To do that effectively, need professional development and professional support.

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