Your Child and Mental Health

While many adults believe that children live a life of ease, this is certainly not necessarily always true. Your child and mental health is a dynamic world unto it’s own.

Children are not without their own emotional, mental, and physical troubles. Just as with older humans, children are capable of feeling all types of feelings. These include feelings of sadness, hurt, mistrust, anxiety, and anger. In addition, the way that children deal with these feelings can have a huge effect on their emotional health. Children and mental health often reflects greatly on the parental mental health that a child has when he or she become a parent themselves. Kids that grow up in a positive environment are much more likely to be positive adults than those that experience negative emotional mental health during their childhood.

Infant and child mental health establishes a foundation of self-esteem for life.

Children as young as infants are aware of trust and mistrust in others and in self. After a child is only a few months old, their emotional health begins to develop. It is important during infancy that a baby learns he or she can trust the caregiver. The baby needs to know that his or her needs are taken care of when a diaper should be changed or a feeding needs to take place. Infants that go long periods of time without the attention of the caregiver are much more likely not to trust.

Once the infant passes through the stage of placing trust in others, a toddler encounters a stage of emotional mental health called autonomy vs. shame and doubt. During this period, the child needs to feel that he or she is capable of independence. While an infant needed others, toddlers are looking for space to obtain good mental health. When a toddler is not given the opportunity to find independence, he or she often grows up having a lacking self-esteem, feeling ashamed as well as a whole assortment of other mental health issues. Much independence during this stage of life is found through potty training with the toddler taking care of his or her own bathroom needs.

Your child and mental health goes hand in hand with the circumstance of the family environment while growing up.

Initiative verse guilt follows the toddler stage when a child reaches preschool and kindergarten. During this stage, the child emotionally needs to explore others and the world around him or her and begins to become interested in belonging to a group and role-playing within that group. During this stage of life, a person develops much of their background for social interaction. Children who are allowed to explore and interact with others are much more likely to carry over positive social skills into adulthood than those that are secluded from group activities. These others can end up on the opposite side of the spectrum in regards to their social and mental health becoming withdrawn from others.

It is quite apparent that child and adult mental health become synonymous throughout life.

Part of creating a solid foundation in children to carry over into adulthood is allowing children the opportunity to learn how to make choices. Children need to experience the effects that their choices have on their lives. Instead of continually giving a child direction, it is better to give a child options.

When allowed to take some actions into their own hands helps create an emotional mental health framework for the future, Setting boundaries and preparing children for disappointments help children prepare for good mental health and avoidance of mental health issues as an adult. In some cases, children can make choices for themselves. However, children also need to learn that not everything will always be controlled by them. They need to learn to accept the things that they cannot control. A child that learns to cope with disappointment through a caregiver that sets boundaries will grow into an adult with a foundation of more positive emotional mental health than those children that never experience hearing the word “no”. All of this is very critical for child and adolescent development.

While all research indicates that the environment in which a child grows greatly affects his or her emotional mental health, not all parents that fail to properly foster their child’s stages of health are neglectful or bad parents. In fact, many parents struggle with the proper methods they should carry out to help their child grow into a prosperous adult.

Interaction is a great way to help your child’s emotional mental health bloom. Children need to be cuddled and feel the touch of others. In addition, they need communication. Even as an infant, babies respond to parents and others through coos. Responding to these babbles is an important part of the infant and child mental health development process (both mentally and emotionally). As the child grows older, let him or her know what he or she has to say is important by listening and responding in conversation.

In addition to talking, your child and mental health is dependent upon nonverbal responses also. Be certain to make eye contact with the child. Share gestures and facial expressions during daily routines such as dinner, story time, and bath time.

Be certain that you have expectations for your child and that they are appropriate for the child’s age level. Placing too much pressure or high expectations on your child can be harmful to his or her emotional mental health. Do not place expectations on the child that he or she is not mature enough to handle.

When your child reaches a charged emotional situation, try to help the child understand the feelings and work through the problem. Let your child know that it is okay to express emotions if they are expressed in a proper manner.

Raising or working with a child can be a large responsibility when it is realized that the things the child experiences now affects how he or she will respond to the world as an adult. The positive or negative environment that a kid encounters through childhood affects the ways that he or she handles situations independently when grown.

Mental Health Stigma

Despite the increase in publicity surrounding mental health and mental health issues, there is still a lack of understanding about mental health in general. For example, a research survey published by the government “Attitudes to Mental Illness 2007″ reported that 63% of those surveyed described someone who is mentally ill as suffering from schizophrenia, and more than half believed that people with mental illness should be kept in a psychiatric ward or hospital. Overall the results showed that positive attitudes to people with mental health had actually decreased since 1994 which is worrying indeed.

Amazingly, many people still don’t understand that mental health problems affect most of us in one way or another, whether we are suffering from a mental illness ourselves or not. If we bear in mind that a quarter of the population are suffering from some kind of mental health problem at any one time, then the chances are, even if we personally don’t have a mental illness, we will know someone close to us who does, so it is our responsibility to understand what mental illness is and what can be done about it.

Many people with mental health problems will often feel isolated and rejected and too afraid to share their problems with others purely because of the way they might be perceived. This lack of understanding means they are less likely to get the kind of help and support they need and are in danger of slipping even further into depression and mental illness. People need to understand that mental illness need not be a barrier to a better quality of life and that help is available and that most people with a mental health problem can regain full control over their lives if they get the support they need.

A new guide to mental health

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has produced a new guide to mental health which was published in November 2007 and is aimed at informing the general public about what mental illness is and is a big step towards tackling the stigma that is still attached to mental illness.

The guide is written in an easy to understand format and over 60 mental health experts have contributed to it. The Mind: A User’s Guide contains chapters that cover a whole range of mental illnesses and includes a section on how the brain works, how mental illness is diagnosed, and how to cope with it.

A Scottish survey

In Scotland, a national survey of public attitudes to mental health Well? What Do You Think? (2006) was published in September 2007 and highlighted that although people living in socially deprived areas have a higher incidence of mental health, the level of stigmatisation is still no lower than in other areas. This suggests that being confronted with mental illness is not enough to change the attitudes towards it.

There are also gender differences too. According to the Scottish survey, men with a mental health problem were more likely to be treated with suspicion than women and were also more inclined to avoid social contact with someone else with a mental health problem. Even out of those who displayed a positive attitude towards people with mental health problems, many said they would be reluctant to tell anyone if they had a mental health problem themselves which just goes to show that there is still fear surrounding other peoples’ perceptions of mental health.

A CIPD Survey

A recent study conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and KPMG consultants surveyed over 600 employers and reported that doctors are not doing enough to help people with mental health problems return to work and that this is costing the business world billions of pounds. For example, only 3% of the participants rated doctor support as “very good”.

It may be that doctors really don’t know what else to offer someone suffering from depression and anxiety other than drugs and time off work. Even more worrying was the fact that 52% of employers maintained that they never hired anyone with a history of mental illness which serves to perpetuate the stigma. On a more positive note, of those that did hire someone with a mental health problem, more than half said the experience had been “positive”.

Changing attitudes

A lot is being done by governments and organisations to try to change public attitudes towards mental health but is it enough? Until we all recognise that mental illness doesn’t discriminate, it can affect any one of us at any time regardless of our age, gender or social background, the stigma attached to mental illness is likely to persist.

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, it can affect any one of us at any time regardless of our age, gender or social background, and yet the stigma attached to mental illness still persists. Although a number of government initiatives, awareness campaigns and organisations have been set up specifically to tackle mental health stigma and change our attitudes towards mental health in general, there is still a long way to go.

It is therefore up to each and every one of us as individuals to make sure we are well informed and understand the issues involved because only when the public are fully aware of the facts will mental health stigma become a thing of the past.

Exercise, Physical Activity and Mental Health

Exercise and physical activity play a crucial role in both maintaining one’s mental health condition and in recovering from a mental illness. Breaking research indicates that exercise actually produces a chemical that stimulates the growth of brain cells, thus allowing for recovery from sever substance abuse disorders. Furthermore, physical activity and mental health recovery coincide in fostering a social network and encouraging self-reflection, both of which are crucial on the path to mental health recovery.

The human mind evolved in an environment which required it to travel over twelve miles daily. And no, that drive to work in the morning does not count…but that would make things easier, no? This evolution was due to survival instincts when humans migrated from the jungles into the flatlands. Humans also developed an adrenaline reaction which both encouraged movement and triggered immediate learning reactions; as Doctor Carl Clark from the Mental Health Center of Denver once stated, when early man saw that saber-tooth tiger charging out of the brambles, the neurons must have been firing pretty fast to teach them to stay away from the bushes next time…that is assuming their get away was fast enough to allow for a next time!

This adrenaline rush encouraging learning has become neutralized by the flow of activities in modern western societies, wherein the normal individual is seemingly on a constant, albeit generally unnoticed, adrenaline rush. Consequently, stress levels have continuously been on the rise, consequently decreasing the rate at which an individual learns when in a compromising situation, thus decreasing mental wellness levels.

Physical activity is a huge aid to mental health in the fact that exercise allows for a stress outlet, thus decreasing day-to-day stress, while creating functional adrenaline for the mind. In reality, physical activity is important for mental health due to its role in creating Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which is a key factor in the creation of brain cells. The myth of the old days is past; you know the one, where once your brain cells are gone they are gone. Well such is not the case, physical activity and exercise can increase BDNF levels and allow the re-growth of brain cells, consequently making physical activity immensely important for mental illness recovery.

Exercise and mental health further coincide in regards to the alarming statistic that people with mental illnesses, on average, die 20 years sooner than mentally healthy individuals. While there are many factors that go into this involved in substance abuse risk factors, two considerations that one would be remiss to ignore is the fact that those suffering from mental illnesses have a tendency to stagnate and become physically inactive. This has resulted in a large percentage of mental health consumers being considered overweight, which can ultimately result in adult onset diabetes. Diabetes is very dangerous in sedentary individuals who, in a depressant state, care little about taking care of themselves, for such a medical ailment can result in numerous health related issues, some of which can be very serious.

Physical activity and mental illness recovery are highly correlated. In some of the most successful recovery-based treatment facilities one will find strong proponents of mental health consumers engaging in physical activity. These activities also subsidize the development and formation of a support network populated by individuals interested in similar hobbies. Furthermore, exercise can often be a form of active meditation, and as practitioners of Dialectic Behavioral Treatment (DBT) can profess, meditation, including meditation absent any religious connotations (whether it be active or seated), drives self-reflection which is crucial to mental health recovery; for more information on the importance of self-reflection, you can access my article on Spirituality and Hope in Mental Health.

Stay physically active, exercise and mental wellness are highly correlated. Exercise is one of the best ways to prevent the development of serious mental illnesses, and is also one of the most effective treatment plans. Stay active, stay healthy, stay happy.

Teen Mental Health

Parents worried about teen mental health need not look any further. Factual information can help you to make decisions that will actually help your child be happier in his or her life. Teens are at the vulnerable stage in life and, as a parent, if you search the net or talk to your friends, you will get a lot of advice on how to help improve your teen’s mental health.

Yet, facts are what matter! Facts have no vested interest or bias and may help you, the loving parent, to determine what is best for your child. First, to define mental health symptoms, disorders and diagnoses, there are these facts: No medical tests exist that can detect a mental health disorder (no brain scan, no blood test, no chemical imbalance test). Dr. Allen Frances, Editor of the psychiatric diagnostic manual, edition IV, states in an article titled, Mislabeling Medical Illness as Mental Disorder, ” that the diagnoses “will harm people who are medically ill by mislabeling their medical problems as mental disorder.” Dr. Russell Barkley, clinical professor of psychiatry, and pediatrics, in the same article, states, ” There is no lab test for any mental disorder right now in our science.”

Psychiatric disorders are listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The disorders are voted on by workgroups comprised of psychiatrists. Dr. Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, was reported by the New Yorker as refuting the validity of mental health diagnoses. “Insel announced that the D.S.M.’s diagnostic categories lacked validity, that they were not ‘based on any objective measures,’ and that, ‘unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma or AIDS,’ which are grounded in biology, they were nothing more than constructs put together by committees of experts. America’s psychiatrist-in-chief seemed to be reiterating what many had been saying all along: that psychiatry was a pseudoscience, unworthy of inclusion in the medical kingdom. According to a 2012 report from the University of Massachusetts, “Three-fourths of the work groups continue to have a majority of their members with financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry”. Per the FDA, some of the side effects of psychiatric drugs include mania, psychosis, depression, suicidal thoughts, homicidal thoughts and death. Non-psychiatric medical professionals can, and do, perform medical tests to detect any potential underlying physical cause of unwanted mental health symptoms.

Per Florida Department of Health Regulation, Florida Patient’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, each individual has the right to be fully informed about the proposed medical treatment or procedure. This includes the right to know the risks and alternatives. For those who live outside of Florida, Informed Consent, the right to know the risks and the alternatives to any treatment, is a legally accepted term that is used globally and ensures your right to make decisions for your health and well being.

Second, considering the, above-mentioned, facts, there becomes a vicious circle for any teen, adult or elder, who is experiencing life’s stresses, and therefore the effects of those stresses, such as anxiety, depression, mood swings, aggression, and more. The never-ending circle is that of mental health diagnoses, mental health drugs, (more drugs, whether prescribed or abused) and more mental health diagnoses, with only seeming improvement in symptoms if the drug or drugs have chemically restrained the initial and unwanted mental health symptoms, temporarily. Unfortunately, for most those restraints fail to work after time and the adverse effects take place, which of course produce more mental health symptoms, more diagnoses and more drugs.

Teen mental health is an important topic! It has to do with the welfare of your child, our future adult in society. Those that shape and direct how our culture will develop over time. To improve your teen’s mental health, consider the facts and in doing so, talk to traditional, non mental heath, medical professionals about the possibility of a thorough medical exam that will test for all possible physical causes of the teen’s depression, anxiety, aggression, etcetera.

Time and history are on your side, because over time, and strewn through the last 4 decades are medical research and multitudes of documented real-life cases of individuals who did avail themselves of a thorough physical examination, found the true physical cause of their problems and resolved all through the use of medical science that carried none of the FDA warnings on mental health drugs, which of course, are mental health symptoms in themselves. Such as, mania, delusions, psychosis, worsening depression, anxiety, hallucinations, suicidal and homicidal thoughts and actions.

Will Fudeman, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, recently published an article about his work as a psychotherapist. He felt he had to do more to help his patients than listen to their woes. He decided, after his own personal experience of having horrific pain after a car accident, that he wanted to study Chinese medicine. He got his license to practice as an Acupuncturist and, after his 20 years as a therapist, he says that he had come to understand that emotional and physical are “intertwined”.

Dr. Fudeman cites Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and his research treating those who have experienced all types of trauma. Even those who have been to war, experienced natural disasters and serious accidents, etcetera. Fudeman says “Van der Kolk has found that survivors of trauma are helped most by treatments that bring them into their bodies in the present time.”

Reclaiming Good Mental Health

What is good mental health? We are all more or less mentally healthy, and this usually varies through our lives especially as we deal with difficult life events, change and so on. Whether we call this psychological wellbeing, happiness, contentment, positive mindset, all these terms relate to good mental health.

With our physical health, it’s part of our everyday discourse to be aspirational. We want to feel physically fit, energetic, strong, balanced in our weight, eating a healthy diet, supple, resilient and not prone to minor ailments. Sure we complain about our problems, and talk about how we can’t do all the things we know we ought to do. We know it’s not easy to stay physically healthy without working at it, especially if we’ve experienced health problems. We know that even if we reach the peak of physical fitness, we can’t maintain this for the rest of our lives without paying attention to it.

Research tells us that good mental health is even more beneficial than good physical health. A positive mental outlook increases the rate and speed of recovery from serious, even life threatening, illness. Psychological resilience and wellbeing gives people the strength to turn problems into challenges into triumphs.

Yet whenever I ask a group of people to tell me what words come into mind in relation to ‘mental health’, their responses are about mental ill-health! It’s as if the term has been hi-jacked to become totally problem-focused.

In the meantime, we’re experiencing an epidemic of mental ill-health. About 1 in 4 people are experiencing some form of common mental health problem such as depression, anxiety and various stress related symptoms. GP surgeries are overwhelmed with such problems, mental health services are only able to provide support for the 1% of the population with much more severe mental health difficulties, and there’s a plethora of largely unregulated services, treatments and remedies out on the private market. A recent research study showed that the majority of long term sickness absence from work resulted from stress related conditions.

The trouble with focusing on the problems and the pain, is that that’s what we become experts in. We’re looking for cures and treatments to fix the problem, instead of focusing on what makes for good mental health. We know that physical health is multi-dimensional – no-one imagines that pumping iron to build your muscles is a recipe for overall physical health, although it will certainly make you stronger for certain activities.

So what are the essentials of good mental health?

Connection is certainly one of the best known. Having positive close relationships is good for our mental health, as is having a wider network of friends, colleagues and acquaintances which will vary over time. Giving to others is another really important aspect of connection, improving our sense of self worth and wellbeing.

Challenge is about learning and development, it’s how we grow. For children, everyday brings new challenges, yet as adults we often become increasingly fearful of change, unwilling to learn new skills or put ourselves in unfamiliar situations. So expanding our comfort zone, sometimes in small ways if we’re feeling particularly vulnerable, will help develop our self-confidence and sense of personal achievement.

Composure means a sense of balance, and ability to distance ourselves from our thoughts and emotions. It means our ability to respond rather than react. This could be described as our sense of spiritual connection, which may come through a particular belief or faith, or may be found through connection with nature. A mentally healthy person will feel an inner strength of spirit, and find ways to support that.

Character relates to the way in which we interpret our experiences and our responses to them. We all have our own personal story, or stories, which we may or may not tell others. We may cast ourselves as the hero, the victim or the villain, and however we do this will impact generally on our mental health. Someone who has experienced severe life trauma may have great difficulty piecing together their story at all, leaving them feeling literally fragmented. Good mental health means having a strong sense of personal values, awareness of our own strengths, skills and resources, and personal stories of learning from mistakes, survival, success and appreciation.

Creativity represents the fun, childlike aspects of our mental health. As children we are naturally creative and we play. As we grow into adulthood, our creativity and playfulness is often discouraged or devalued, and this can cause great frustration, literally diminishing the capacity of our brain to function as well as it could. Exploring creative activities has often been found to have a powerful therapeutic effect, and good mental health certainly depends in part on opportunities to bring fun, playfulness and creativity into our lives.

These 5 C’s of good mental health offer a framework within which we can think about our mental health in the same way as we might our physical health. It’s pretty damned hard to be a perfect specimen of physical health,but then who needs to be perfect? Just like our physical health, our mental health is a work in progress and always will be.

In years gone by, many people with physical illnesses were treated cruelly because of ignorance and shame. I recall when cancer was spoken in hushed whispers as the Big C. Nowadays mental ill-health is the ‘elephant in the room’ which we need to be looking at long and hard, exposing to practical common sense and intelligent discussion.

World Mental Health Day on October 10 has been a timely reminder that good mental health really is something we can aspire to for everyone. Let’s make it so!

Carolyn Barber, Bsc (Hons), CQSW, is the founder of Wayfinder Associates, a social care training and consultancy business specialising in team development, independent supervision and staff wellbeing. As a serial social entrepreneur, Carolyn has developed community based programmes to promote understanding of mental wellbeing using positive solution focused approaches.