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3 Ways to Begin Helping Children and Young People With Mental Health Struggles

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

We live in a society full of distinctively broken systems — the health system, the justice system, the child welfare system, the legal system, the political system… I could go on. Consider how often in daily conversations or in media coverages you hear about how one system or another could be improved, how a system has done wrong, or how a system has allowed someone to fall through the cracks. It’s everywhere. It is evident that these systems routinely fail us and consistently leave marginalized and vulnerable populations in the dust. However, it is easy to ignore these problems when it does not affect your day-to-day life. It is easy for us to cast the blame onto somebody else — whether they are a doctor, a lawyer, a police officer, a political leader or somebody else — and then to simply move on.

There is one broken system that we cannot continue to ignore: the children’s mental health system. In my home state of Ontario, as many as 1 in 5 children and young people will experience some form of mental health problem. Only 1 out of 6 of those children will receive the treatment they need. A failure to access services in a timely manner can often be fatal. Suicide is among the leading causes of death in Canadians aged 15 to 24, with 4,000 people dying prematurely by suicide each year.

The cost of ignoring these numbers is far too high.

But, what is a person to do?

1. Assist the children and young people in your life with developing positive mental health strategies.

Start by teaching the kids in your life how to recognize what they are feeling and how to express their feelings in words. Children often shut down or become confused when asked to talk about their feelings because they perceive unpleasant emotions as being negative or shameful. Teach them that feelings are never bad, especially if they learn how to cope with them. Furthermore, children often need to be shown that having a mix of highs and lows is normal for everyone. Talk to them about this and show them it is OK to ask for help.

Finally, work to be aware of the child’s actions and behaviors, notice the way your child thinks about the world and themselves, listen to children’s concerns and worries and take them seriously, promote a healthy lifestyle, and spend positive time with them to build good, trusting relationships.

2. Know the signs and symptoms of mental illness.

Though signs and symptoms of mental illness vary depending upon the disorder and the individual, there are symptoms and behaviors that often indicate there may be something deeper going on. I recommend reading Children’s Mental Health: A Guide for Parents by One in Five Minds to get a further understanding of these.

If you are unsure if a child in your life may be experiencing any of the signs and symptoms of a mental illness, speak with a friend, family member, teacher, physician or counsellor to get further input. Remember, it is not your job to diagnose and treat the young person all on your own; you are not alone in this process. Your role is to recognize the signs so you can assist the child in finding professional help and treatment.

3. Advocate.

Work to build mental health awareness in your community. In a recent report from the Ontario Center of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health, young people identified eight priorities to improve mental health services: build mental health awareness in the community, clearly identify and advertise available mental health services, invest in the relationship between youth and services providers, make room for more personalized mental health care, improve service settings and safe youth-friendly spaces, provide more in-school support, expand access to services and invest in peer support and group-based programming. Perhaps choosing one of these needs and rolling with it would be the best place to start your advocacy journey. The way you choose to advocate for child and youth mental health will depend largely on your personal comfort level, means available and services available in your location. You could write a letter to your local government, start a support group, start a blog or become involved with a local mental health agency.

Hopefully, by taking these steps, we can work together to improve the lives of children and youth with mental health disorders/illness and begin to create a system with far fewer cracks.

Pexels Photo via Gratisography

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