Little things that make a big difference to the mental health of young people

RACHEL DOHERTY

Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen

Youth mental health is a big issue, but for parents, youth workers, families and friends, the little things you say and do can make the biggest difference.

Having a child grappling with a mental health condition is harrowing. You sometimes wonder what you’ll come home to. And it can be difficult to watch them wallow, day after day, with no progress.

Most doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists look at big things to turn things around. But it’s often the little things that we do at home, or our kids do for their friends, that have the most impact. It’s these little things that help kids get through. One day at a time.

“It’s the little things that count, hundreds of ’em.”

CLIFF SHAW

One-third of young Australians identify mental health as the biggest issue they face. While one in seven children under 18 show the symptoms of a mental health condition each year. And we know that most young people will talk to family and friends before they access formal services, like counselling or medical treatment.

If you know a young person in the grip of depression, anxiety, an eating disorder or another mental health issue, then this article is about giving you some simple tools. Some little things you can do today to build that young person up.

 

Simple things to improve youth mental health

There are some clear signs a young person’s mental health is at risk. They’ve been down for a few weeks. They’re sleeping more than usual. They’re taking more risks or have a disregard for their life. They talk more about having no value, of being better off dead.

They might be opting out of things they used to enjoy. Their behaviour can change. They can start cutting themselves or have unexplained injuries.

These are signs of a serious mental health issue, and you should encourage them to get some professional help. To talk to their doctor or see a counsellor at school. Another option here in Australia is Headspace. If they’re really at risk, they can also go to an emergency department at their local hospital.

But these are all big things to do for youth mental health. And they can take a lot of courage for young people to act on.

That’s where those around them can do some little things to make the journey easier. They might not feel like much but they make a big difference in the long run.

Asking the right questions

When teenagers are in a low mood, you can feel like you need to tip-toe around them. There’s a sense that anything could tip them over the edge, particularly hard questions about how they’re feeling. But those are the questions we should be asking.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when asking teenagers questions. First, don’t ask questions that they can give one word answers to. Those questions that start with what and why usually avoid this.

Be patient. They have a lot of thoughts rattling around in their brain and might need a bit of time to work out an answer. Don’t feel you have to fill in those awkward pauses.

When you hear their answer, say it back to them in a different way. Hearing their own words spoken by someone else can give teenagers some clarity about their own thinking.

For a list of great questions to get your teenager talking about their mental health, check out this article from Developing Minds.

Taking time to listen

Words often dry up for young people in the grip of a mental health struggle. They can become withdrawn and almost numb. But there will be times when they do talk. If you can, drop what you’re doing and listen. If you don’t have time at that moment, explain why and tell them when you can focus on them.

Listening isn’t just hearing the words people speak. It’s about showing attention and interest. Looking their way, nodding to encourage them to go on. Waiting through their pauses. How we respond to what a teenagers says is as important as what we say back to them.

“A child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health and deserves the same quality of support.” – Kate Middleton

Not showing fear

Watching a teenager self-destruct is terrifying. But we do them no favours when we fall apart ourselves. We need to be courageous and willing to walk this difficult journey with them.

Mental health issues aren’t catching, but you can pick one up when you’re caring for someone going through a tough time. So do what you need to do to care of yourself. Go to counselling or see your doctor if the stress is getting to you.

You have to give them your trust, even when you’re afraid. Little bits of trust can build to greater trust. When they blow it, go back a few steps and start again, giving them chances to prove they’re managing. Your faith in them will be a powerful ally in their climb out of the murky depths of where they’ve been.

Pointing out their strengths

Mental health challenges change the self-talk playlist running in a teenager’s mind. While most of us have some negative thoughts, some positive, and plenty in between, these teenagers get downers on a high rotation. They only see their faults and weaknesses.

We need to be an external inner voice that points out their strengths. Not the “good boy” or “good girl” platitudes, but real strengths. Like the qualities that keep them going through adversity. What other people have said about working with them or spending time with them. You have to look for those perfect moments when you can pop in these positive gems, but if you do it often enough, they’ll start to take on the playlist themselves.

Putting a value on their life

Young people who have experienced a mental health issue for a long time can feel worthless. They can feel like they’re wasting oxygen and that everyone would be better off without them. That’s path leads to suicide.

Be a person who tells them why they are valuable and worthy. What do they have to contribute to this world? How do they make your life worth living? Why do you like spending time with them?

Knowing these things can be what keeps a teenager pushing on to a better place. Knowing that one person thinks they’re worth having around, even if they don’t themselves.

You may find my articles on supporting young people with depression and suicidal thoughts helpful if your teenager is facing these.

Avoiding blame

There is nothing to gain from a pity party when it comes to youth mental health. The causes are complex and you can rarely point to one trigger. Don’t blame yourself, your genes, or the young person. Disease happens. Life is hard.

Look to the future, not the past. Help your teenager focus on what they can do today. Being future-focused gives them some control over their illness. It puts them in charge of their mental health, not their mental health controlling them. People who overcome a mental health issue learn to accept it as a weakness to manage, not one that limits them.

You can’t control their situation either. Blaming yourself will only make you doubt what you’re doing and the support you’re giving.

Stay hopeful

Mental health conditions, like anxiety, depression and eating disorders can have a huge impact on the lives of children and teenagers. But they don’t have to rob them of that life.

Just as someone can learn to live with diabetes, or go through life after an organ transplant. Kids can live a full life with a psychological issue with the right support. It’s about helping them to work out a life that feels satisfying and sustainable. Young people with mental health issues have to feel supported and have the courage to take a different path, or walk the same one slower. They might need to study and work part-time, or have regular breaks to recharge and sort out their self-care strategies. I’ve written about some of these strategies in my article on putting mental health before grades.

But we should never lose hope that they can do it. They need caring adults around them who believe they have a full life ahead of them, that will be satisfying. This can be tricky when kids are in the last year or two of school and a mental health issue has them down. For some more tips on how to support these kids, read my article on supporting kids in the last year of school.

With so many young people facing mental health challenges, we can all do little things to support them through the tough days and move towards a better place. Start with making space for conversations. Asking the right questions and listening to their responses. The rest will fall into place as that relationship deepens. And in the meantime, encourage them to access professional help when they need to.

Have you got a little thing that works well with teenagers? I’d love you to share it below. You never know what family you might make a difference for.

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