25% of people with a mental disorder experience their first episode before they are 12 years old.*

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) Vice President, Professor Geoffrey Dobb, said that “Good mental health is vital to our wellbeing – it allows us to think and learn and interact meaningfully with others.”

The main influences on a child’s mental health are family, schools, life events, the child’s temperament and their social environment. Mentally healthy children are better able to enjoy life and make a meaningful contribution to their family, school and later on their community and society. It enables them to learn better, cope better with others and negotiate life’s challenges.

Tips on how to protect against poor mental health in young people

Belonging. Probably the most important protective factor for a child’s positive mental health is that the child has a strong sense of belonging and connectedness to their family and the world around them. This sense of stability and security helps young people to become more resilient and gives them the coping mechanisms needed to manage stress and difficulties they might face outside the home. So it is important to make the family a safe predictable and consistent environment as far as is possible.

Listen. When children are troubled they need to know there is an adult they can turn to who will listen to them and not judge them, someone who can help them solve their problems and give them the encouragement they need to work through difficult situations.

Reassurance. Acknowledge a young person’s fears and worries and reassure them that they are not alone. Reassurance helps them cope with difficulties they face. They might not show fear or insecurity in words so it is important to watch their behaviours (are they clingy or having bad dreams) and keep reassuring them until they feel safe and strong enough to start putting coping strategies in place.

Routines. Children gain a great sense of security from knowing what is going to happen. Keep regular routines such as bedtime and mealtimes. In this way they know their needs are being met and they can relax.  For younger children making sure they know the responsible adult that is taking them somewhere or meeting them from school is also important so they do not spend their day worrying about how they will get home or what will happen.

Encouragement. Giving young people positive feedback when they are trying something for the first time or persevering at something they find difficult helps to develop coping skills. It gives them confidence in their ability to mange challenging situations. Always acknowledge and show your appreciation for any support they offer when a difficult situation arises, try to solve the problem together and acknowledge their input.

Social and emotional development. Teaching children social and emotional skills helps them learn about managing emotions, relating to others, solving problems and managing conflict.

Seek Help. It’s OK to get help if you feel a child is having mental, emotional or behavioural difficulties. There are a number of ways of approaching this; through schools, the local GP, a child psychologist or various organisations that offer help. The earlier a child is given support and help the better chance they have of developing positive mental health. Getting support helps to build your own resilience so you can provide more effective care for a young person in need.

Where to find help:
beyondblue is a national, independent, not-for-profit organisation working to address issues associated with depression, anxiety and related substance-use disorders in Australia.

Child and Youth Health is a South Australian government website providing news and practical advice for parents and carers on a range of parenting and child health topics.

The Raising Children Network, funded under the Australian Government’s Stronger Families and Communities Strategy, is a national website aimed at helping families care for their children.

Early Childhood Australia is the peak national, non-profit, non-government organisation that acts in the interests of young children. They provide a range of options and outcomes to support growth and development of young children.

* The Australian Medical Association (AMA)

Writer Helen Splarn. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha.
Source: The Australian Medical Association (AMA). World Health Organisation (WHO). Kidsmatter.