Mental Health and Young People
What is unique about your work with children as opposed to adults? Is there a different way you approach these different types of sessions?
One essential ingredient for any therapy to work is the openness and willingness to change (for example to change a behavior or change the way you see a problem). Although children and adolescents may not always like it, they are constantly living in ‘change’. Whether this is their bodies changing physically and hormonally or changes in their education or friendships, change is part of their life. I think as adults we can often be more rigid in our thinking and more resistant to things changing. Children and adolescents on the other hand, are in a sort of fluid and malleable stage in life, and this makes them more willing and able to do things that may be out of their comfort zone. This often brings about a positive outcome in therapy sessions.
I have a real deep love for working with children and adolescents and it is partly because I can be very creative with them. They often have a great imagination that therapy can help them explore how they see themselves and the world around them. Bringing about hope and change are central aspects of therapy.
What types of therapeutic methods do you incorporate in your sessions?
A large part of my initial work with a client is gathering a formulation (a sort of roadmap of the person and the problems) and then setting some goals. These elements help therapy to be unique to that individual and then we can pick what techniques might work best for treatment.
I mainly use CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) when counseling a child or adolescent. In CBT, we take close look at the thoughts, feelings and behaviors connected to potential problems. This therapy can be useful for anyone that is struggling with anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other emotional difficulties.
Alongside CBT, I enjoy incorporating physical and active techniques to my work; such as breathing and mindfulness techniques. These can be quick and effective at changing emotional states and easy for people to practice at home. For example, mindfulness would be teaching them to have better control over the way they respond to the thoughts in their mind. Emotions are largely governed by what we think – therefore, changing thinking is crucial. Mindfulness practice is when we can be in the present moment and observe difficult thoughts without judging them. Imagine standing in a supermarket watching items of groceries going through the check out (conveyor belt) and let’s say the items represent your different thoughts. Mindfulness would be to notice the grocery items (your thoughts), observe them and let them go. Being unmindful would be to pick up the grocery items (your thoughts) and begin to question and overthink each of them. If mindfulness and breathing techniques are done well at the beginning of treatment and improve the child’s mood, they can often help individuals to have great hope in the success of their whole treatment journey.
When should parents be concerned about their child’s mental health? What signs should parents look out for?
Signs to look out for may really vary depending on what is ‘normal’ for that child’s age group and also cultural norms. Some initial common warning signs could be significant changes in their eating habits, sleeping patterns or school work. If a child/adolescent is struggling, they often move to an extreme end of a particular behaviour as a way to cope. For example, it is important to notice if your child is withdrawing from activities that they previously enjoyed, like hobbies, socializing or being around a particular friendship group. On the other hand, a child may also be doing the opposite to withdrawing; where they appear to be over dependent on others and feel they need to be constantly around others. Also some children can begin ruminating about their worries, and others may become excessive about exercise or school work.
A big thing to notice out of all of this is changes in their ability to manage day-to-day tasks or overcome challenges they handled well previously. Is the problem interfering with their daily life? If you feel concerned, it is important to take time and observe your child’s behavior in order to recognize any warning signs. All these signs and behaviors do not necessarily mean that the child has a mental health problem, but it might mean that they need some guidance with how they’re dealing with stuff. If things persist, then it would be important to seek some professional help.
How can parents suggest the idea of therapy to their child doesn’t approach by them, but there are some warning signs?
Normalizing mental health is key in this situation. Parents should try to check in with their child often about how they are feeling in general, and they can ask questions like “How are you managing this week?” or “This must have been quite stressful, how are you coping with it?” It always helps if parents themselves model how to talk about these things. It’s important to sometimes just say “This week has been really stressful for Mom, and I got really anxious when…” or “This situation was quite hard and overwhelming because…”. Open discussions about having a hard time and still going and getting through it, can be priceless for a child.
When you think something serious is going on that is distinguishable from the daily pressures of life, be open about it! You can always just ask, “Hey, we’ve noticed that things are different/difficult for you than usual, how would you feel about getting some help?” Always be upfront and emphasize that getting help is not a weakness. It is simply that sometimes people need a little extra support and guidance.
What can parents do to support young persons mental health?
As I said before, parents should act as role models when it comes to mental health. Sometimes even just letting your child know that everybody experiences all emotions helps (we all get angry, sad, overwhelmed or anxious sometimes). Normalizing the experience of different states of mind is key.
The most common problem with adolescents for example is that they feel like no one else is experiencing what they are experiencing. Letting them know that they are not alone will make it easier for them to reach out. Adolescents and parents sometimes have a hard time communicating and connecting due to the specificities of this age group, thus it is important to continue to have one-on-one quality time with your offspring. Parents often assume that adolescents don’t want to spend time with them anymore but they will thank you for it later! Doing something informal without any pressure like taking a walk together, going shopping or even going to a movie can often be the first step towards a conversation and building trust.
Do you have any favorite apps, books or resources to support children and their families struggling with mental health?
For young people who use smart phones ‘Headspace’ is a great free app where you can be guided through relaxation exercises and get tips to improve your wellbeing.
In terms of websites, I love www.youngminds.org.uk. Here, young people share their stories, so this is great for letting your child know that they’re not alone.
In terms of books for young children, I really like the workbook “Think Good, Feel Good” by Paul Stallard. “Managing your mind” by Gillian Butler is more for adults, but nevertheless a great option for adolescents.
How can we openly talk about mental health in our everyday life? Can it be part of a casual dinner-table conversation?
Yes, I definitely think so. Mental health should be as important to talk about as physical health. People sometimes get scared of mental illnesses because there is usually no “quick fix” for them. However, it’s important to remember that just like when you have a runny nose or are sneezing, you may not need to take medication or antibiotics right away or even go to the doctors. The same goes for mental health. Just because you may be anxious sometimes it doesn’t mean that you have a mental health illness and you should immediately receive intensive treatments or go to into hospital. Mental health problems sit along a spectrum just like physical health.
It’s great that mental health is becoming a more and more common topic on TV and social media, and I think that’s great. If you need an icebreaker to help incorporate mental health, bring something up from the news, or your favorite TV-show, and again, normalize the experience.
Shani St Louis is a Psychological Counsellor, Mental Health Specialist and Psychiatric Nurse at Linden. She has a B.A Honours degree in Psychiatric (Mental Health) Nursing; and a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Post Graduate Diploma from Oxford University. She has over ten years of work experience with children, young people and families (school and hospital settings). Shani has a passion for helping young people who maybe struggling with mental health difficulties remain connected within education. Her specialist areas are eating disorders and anxiety (emotional) disorders. Her eclectic experience ranges from individual/ group therapy to crisis intervention. This experience allows her to offer bespoke care with openness and acceptance; creating a non-judgement and supportive environment for young people, parents or schools to bring about positive change.