A guest post by Alice Porter, an avid writer who is passionate about raising awareness for children’s mental health.
In the UK it is believed that 1 in 10 children and young people between the ages of 5 and 16 suffer from a mental health disorder. This means that there is a chance that 3 children in every class are sufferers. As someone who has children in your care, it’s important that you know what warning signs to look out for, and what to do next. We spoke to an industry specialist Lorraine* who gave us advice on her experience working with children who suffer from mental illnesses…
Mood swings: Be aware of severe mood swings that cause problems with relationships at school or at home, or feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last more than two weeks.
Extreme feelings: Look out for overwhelming fear for no reason at all, or worries severe enough to interfere with day to day life.
Difficulty concentrating: Find out if they have trouble sitting still or focusing, which could be indicated by poor performance in school.
Unexplained weight loss: Keep an eye out for drastic loss of weight due to lack of appetite or regular vomiting which could signal an eating disorder.
Physical harm: If you notice any cuts or burns that look like they have been self inflicted, any suicidal thoughts or actual suicide attempts then these are all big indicators of a mental health disorder.
What To Do Next
As a teacher or someone who cares for children, if you believe a child may have a mental health disorder, there are a number of things you can do to manage the situation…
Educate yourself: Make sure that you are fully clued up about mental health among children before you start to try and educate others. For you to be able to communicate with the child’s caregivers or mental health professionals it’s important you’re aware of the correct terms to use, what symptoms to look out for and possible causes.
Create awareness: By building up awareness of mental health around the school and within your classroom, you reduce the stigma so that students are more likely to open up rather than feeling like it is a taboo subject. This can also allow the children to become aware of symptoms and even recognise them themselves.
Dealing with students: If you suspect mental illness within a child, a good place to start is to keep a diary of the student worrying behaviours. Having a record will allow you to spot any trends, show the reasons that have led you to believe there may be a problem, and that you haven’t just jumped to conclusions. Remember to be positive by reiterating things they’ve achieved and positive qualities before discussing your concerns. It’s also very important not to label them with any terms that could indicate a diagnosis, and instead stick to the symptoms.
Dealing with parents: You must keep in mind that this is a very delicate and challenging topic to bring up with any parent, especially if they’re not knowledgeable about mental health disorders. The last thing you want to do is make them feel like they may be to blame, so be very sensitive with your tone of voice, choice of language and facial expressions. Prepare your goals for the discussion and try your best to keep the conversation on track.
Speak to someone: You need to take time to stop and think about how this is affecting you. Although the child in question and their family will be going through a stressful time, you are also likely to put a lot of strain on yourself. Lorraine* suggests that: “Rather than bottling your feelings up and losing sleep at night from worrying, it’s beneficial to speak to somebody about it.” You could do this at local support groups in your area, where you can open up to people who may have gone through similar experiences. You could also go to your doctor who will be able to refer you to the appropriate professional to speak to.
*Lorraine is an industry specialist who works for a fostering agency in Liverpool, she has 17 years’ experience dealing with children who suffer from mental illnesses.