Although I have worked in student services for a number of years, it took an experience hitting way closer to home for me to fully realize the struggles that parents raising kids with chronic mental health issues are really facing. I think that overall our society has come a long way in regards to decreasing the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, and that we are working hard to better support kids and adults suffering from these, but I also think we still have a very long way to go.
For a few weeks recently, my husband and I went through a challenging period with our 5 year old daughter, who very suddenly started experiencing anxiety, and by this I don’t mean your typical 5 year old worries. It was much more than that. It took this experience for me to truly empathize with other parents in the same situation, and to really realize the work that still needs to be done to better support these children.
I have long known through my line of work that the system of supports available to children suffering from mental health disorders is not an easy one to navigate, and that it also involves an excruciating amount of waiting. In the case of my daughter, I was lucky enough in my own state of worry, to have knowledgeable friends to remind me of, and walk me through the process that I am usually guiding parents through. I was equally lucky that this support got my daughter back on track and functioning again, and in a very short amount of time. Many parents and children are dealing with these struggles for much longer than we did, and I can’t imagine how hard that must be. Going through all of this is when my empathy kicked in.
Despite being lucky enough to access private support and get help in what was considered a very short amount of time, it was still an excruciating wait to get my daughter the help that she needed. Given my line of work and the fact that I have had my own struggles with anxiety, I consider myself to have a fairly full tool kit when faced with anxiety or when helping kids who are dealing with anxiety. Despite all of this, it was still extremely challenging and exhausting. What does it look like for parents or guardians who are less informed on mental health disorders, are less equipped to support their young ones, and are less aware of how to navigate the system? Living all of this first hand made me realize just how unreasonable it is to have parents wait so long to get help for their children. We would never let a child suffer that long with a physical ailment, so why are we okay with these long wait times when treating mental illnesses?
With mental health issues on the rise in children, I don’t think the shortage of mental health support is going to be getting better anytime soon. Manitoba has extremely high rates of mental illness in children (almost double the national average). A whopping 14% of children in Manitoba are living with at least one mental illness. The percentage is probably actually a bit higher, as the study conducted only took into consideration those that were treated by a physician and does not include others who like us, may have sought the support of a psychologist or other counsellor. Read more about the study here and in even greater detail here.
Given that mental disorders are the most common health problems in childhood and seem to continually be on the rise, I feel that it is so important that we focus more on proactive strategies and practices, both in school as educators, and at home as parents. A lot of what we know now, we didn’t now when I was my daughter’s age, and I often wonder how my experiences would have been different had I been able to fill my tool kit at a younger age. Now that we know better, we must do better. So what does that look like? What do we do?
As parents or educators, I think an important first step to working proactively to prevent or reduce mental illnesses, is to start putting as much importance on mental health as we do on physical health. As parents, most of us naturally limit the amount of junk food our kids eat, and work to teach them healthy eating habits and such. In school, kids learn about the food groups and physical health. But how often are parents and teachers teaching them about mental health and lifestyle choices that promote positive mental health? How often are we practicing these with them?
Some examples of what I mean:
- Teaching and practicing relaxation techniques at home and in school (these are not learned over night and need to be practiced before they are really needed, and as preventative measures).
- Talking with our kids about the importance of sleep and how it helps to maintain mental health.
- Talking about the importance of “disconnecting” sometimes and limiting their time “connected” just as we limit their junk food intake.
- Talking about the importance of regular exercise for not just their physical health but for their mental health as well.
- Encouraging time outdoors.
- Just talking about mental health in general.
Another step that I feel is super important and valuable, and that I might just be a little bit obsessed with, is teaching kids about the brain. In more recent years I have become very interested in neuroscience and psychology, and it has really helped me make sense of many things. I have a better understanding of what is happening in my brain when I am feeling anxious or overwhelmed, I have a better understanding of behaviour I see in students, and also a better understanding of the changes my mother has gone through since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s (a neurodegenerative disease).
This interest of mine has spilled over into my teaching and what I am noticing, is that kids (even as young as 5) are very interested in learning about the brain. When it is taught in kid friendly language, they can really catch on and it can really help them to better understand their own stress, anxiety and needs. I have had a lot of success with this, and I am always looking to learn more about the brain so that I can share more with my students.
I realize that not everyone is as interested as I am in learning about mental health, neuroscience and psychology, but I think most of us share a common interest, in that we care deeply about the wellbeing of our kids and students, and a big part of this is their mental health. With the looming potential for a real mental health epidemic, and the shortage of supports in the health care system, we need to build more capacity in our schools and with parents. As educators and parents, we have to become more informed and involved in proactive measures to support positive mental health in our kids.
In a follow up post I would like to share some of the ressources I have found valuable (both as a parent and educator). Stay tuned!