“A washing machine tummy”, “a volcano inside of me” – these are some of the ways young children can describe anxiety and other mental health issues, according to staff at YoungMinds, a mental health charity. In 2016, Childline reported a 15 per cent in suicidal calls, with children as young as 10. There has been a steep rise in self-harm among girls aged 13 to 16. Increasingly, there is talk of a crisis in child mental health.
“We have certainly seen a real increase in demand,” says Jo Hardy, head of parent services at YoungMinds. Parents call the charity’s helpline after struggling to deal with cases of anxiety, depression and self-harm.
While mental health problems are associated with adolescents – and the bulk of calls YoungMinds receives are about teenagers – Hardy increasingly hears from parents with children aged just eight, nine or ten.
Such children tend to lack a medical vocabulary. Instead, parents who call the helpline describe their child’s outbursts or inability to recover from low moods. They may also talk about a change in circumstance, such as bullying at school, the pressures of a friendship breaking down or a school move.
Often the situation has been unfolding for some time. That parents take so long to act reveals some of the wider pressures on families.
“Parents often say they are very worried that having any kind of mental health intervention will have an impact on their children’s employability,” Hardy says. “They also worry about being judged as a parent.
“A lot of parents feel responsible for this problem manifesting. They feel if they speak to the GP the question will be ‘Well, what did you do?’”
Mental health charities like YoungMinds can give parents practical advice, and refer them to specialists. Parents with younger children can attend GP meetings with them, and they can also bring up the subject without the child being present.
Parents are also urged to talk to their children, to better pick up the signs that something is wrong. But this is only the start of the challenge.
Hardy frequently hears from parents with children who are being bullied after indiscreet pictures or words have been shared online. If talking about anxiety wasn’t hard enough, they may have to address the birds and the bees as well, and not in a comforting manner. “It is excruciating for the parent.”
While youthful indiscretion is nothing new, what is different for children born in the internet age is that everything is written down: “It comes back to bite you in such a brutal way,” Hardy says. “Everything is captured.” She talks to parents about online security settings and privacy: “You might not understand all the platforms children use online – but you have got to understand them.”
Children affected by mental health issues can contact Childline on 0800 1111. Adults can call the Parents Helpline: 0808 802 5544 (Monday to Friday 9.30am – 4pm, free for mobiles and landlines).