May 12, 2021
Mental Health Matters
By Dr Kathy Weston
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and the national focus understandably centres on themes such as de-stigmatising mental ill-health, the value of sharing one’s struggles with others and the importance of seeking appropriate help when we need it.
However, let’s be honest, one week out of 52 cannot adequately reflect just how vast the subject of mental health is, nor how nuanced and complex the full range of psychiatric disorders are. The title of this week’s Wednesday Wisdom implies an ease of understanding that belies the complexity surrounding diagnosis. Conversations in mental health week tend to place a spotlight on conditions such as depression or anxiety, when the truth is there are hundreds of disorders listed in DSM-5, the diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists. Furthermore, many of them overlap.
Psychiatric diagnostic terminology is bandied around so glibly now within everyday conversation that the lived experience of patients with genuine psychiatric conditions risks being undermined and the gravity of their conditions potentially diminished. How often have you heard someone say, “I am so OCD”, “I am depressed”, “I feel like I am having a panic attack”, with casual nonchalance?
Popular culture may contribute to this phenomenon. One view of current celebrity magazine spreads could be that talking about one’s depression, anxiety or “battle with postnatal depression”, may be used as an effective way of connecting with fans or promoting a new book or television series. The volume of digital and media content relating to mental health conditions can helpfully hold a mirror up for some readers and ‘raise awareness’, but it can also drive dangerous scepticism. In short, we need more conversations about the conversations that we are having about mental health and about how much harm or good they might be doing.
A new book, published by mental health researcher and academic, Dr Lucy Foulkes, is the breath of fresh air we have all been waiting for.
Losing Our Minds: What Mental Illness Really Is – And What It Isn’t, gives readers an intellectual workout and leaves you sure of one thing: our casual chats about mental ill-health should stop, and be replaced instead with more sensitive conversations about the nuance, the data and the headlines about mental health. She encourages us to unpick sweeping generalisations and acknowledge its complexity. Her analysis is scientific, data-driven and peppered with the experiential; her descriptions of profound and paralysing anxiety are stark and sobering. Such descriptions lay bare the seriousness of mental conditions as opposed to “everyday stresses and challenges of human experience”.
One of her central arguments (and one that had me punching the air in agreement), was that “too often psychiatric conditions” are being confused with having a ‘bad day’, feeling down in the dumps, being fed up, angry, stressed, a bit anxious, unhappy or frustrated. As she makes clear, these are normative, transient experiences, which are central to living a full life. Many of us experience most of them in one day. For any of them to reach a clinical threshold, there are many diagnostic hoops to pass through and a lot of careful assessment.
As parents, we worry. We worry that those tears or low moods in our pubescent child might mean depression. We worry that their meticulous lining up of toys indicates OCD. We worry that their outbursts may indicate something being ‘wrong’. Let it be said, parental instinct is one of our greatest assets and undoubtedly keeps children safe, but we should try and keep things in perspective too.
Labelling everything as something may draw unnecessary attention to what are likely normal developmental responses. It can be tough for children to navigate school, puberty and everyday ups and downs. As parents, our job is to be there for them; caring, actively listening, and helping them puzzle things out. If problems persist, if something doesn’t feel right, parents should never be afraid to ‘run something past’ a medical professional. Saying that, they should have confidence in their own ability to parent, and in the strong foundations for good mental health they provide for their children at home. So where should the focus be?
It is timely to reflect on the pillars of good mental health for children and young people this week. Happily, the research evidence on what keeps children mentally well is pretty clear, as are the parenting habits that might contribute to later mental health problems.
Dr Foulkes summarises the harm of ‘subtle’ negative parenting habits in her book. She talks of, “rejection, defined in the academic literature as the tendency for parents to criticise and disapprove of their child, control (the tendency for parents to excessively regulate their children’s activities and instructions about how the child should think or feel), overprotection (excessive physical contact, infantilising and preventing the child from trying age appropriate risk-taking and independent behaviour) and a lack of warmth and affection”.
In an age where it is easy to blame phones, social media, exams, Covid-19 and popular culture for our children’s unhappiness and mental health problems, let’s remember that a great powerhouse for our children feeling mentally and physically well is the home, what goes on it and the quality of interactions enjoyed there. We can (largely) control what our children experience in this environment.
We can take proactive steps to invest in our own mental health, work hard to boost children’s self-esteem, emotional and academic resilience and help them become good digital citizens. We need our children to feel loved and valued, to like themselves, see themselves as ‘copers’, able to trust their own judgment and to cultivate social relationships that will sustain them as they grow and mature. If we do these things and remain consistently loving and caring, no one can say that we didn’t try our best.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Parents in Tooled Up schools can tune in to my podcast with Dr Lucy Foulkes (or read the accompanying notes), in the Tooled Up library, now. You might also like to look at our list of Books to Support Children’s Mental Health, which contains books that help young people to manage the rainbow of different emotions that we all feel. Don’t forget that our 14 day Wellbeing Journal is perfect to encourage tweens and teens to reflect on their mood and mindset.
This week, we’ve also been thinking about school assessments and the impact parents can have on children’s attitude towards them. It’s not only older children who we need to consider when we think of exams. Younger children will also sit tests, so it is our job to frame assessments as a normal part of school life from an early age. Make sure that you read our top tips on Preparing Young Children for School Assessments and, once they have their results, encourage them to think about their achievements and goals, in our reflective activity, How Did I Do?