Giving children and young people space to talk about mental health

Samaritans CEO Ruth Sutherland:

The groundswell of support around promoting good mental health and well-being is one of the most positive trends to happen in recent years.

The earlier we start talking to children and young people about managing feelings and help them explore ways to develop emotional resilience, the better.

They face great challenges, from navigating social media to dealing with family breakdown and rising academic and financial pressures.

Mental health and emotions need to be demystified so that the coming generations can get to grips with what is needed to build an open and connected society, where it isn’t taboo to ask for help or admit to struggling.

The Government is intending to look at this issue through proposals outlined in the Green Paper on Children and Young People’s Mental health. Although we welcome it, at Samaritans we believe it doesn’t go far enough, fast enough.

To change the culture needs energy and ambition, it is important that as many people as possible join in the consultation

Making communities more resilient takes commitment from all of us, and while we can make some difference as individuals and in our homes, establishing networks locally, with services joining up from different sectors, state, voluntary and private, will help to drive change more comprehensively.

Samaritans Local Action Saves Lives campaign emphasizes the role that local networks can play in preventing suicide by campaigning for effective suicide prevention plans. Sharing resources and pooling knowledge about local issues is invaluable.

One good place to start is in schools, and Samaritans is well placed to advise, as we already work with over 14s in secondary schools through DEAL, Developing Emotional Awareness and Listening, and our Step by Step service, which supports senior teams in schools who are dealing with the suicide of a pupil or a teacher.

Looking at the Green Paper proposals in detail, there are many good ideas, such as making sure there is a whole school approach to mental health and well-being by appointing a senior person with responsibility for it. But it shouldn’t stop there, all teachers need training so that they can develop a good understanding, and help to change the culture of a school.

Making sure all staff, rather than just one person, feel involved and responsible makes it is more likely that it will become a fundamental part of the school’s culture and the way it operates.

Setting up new mental health teams linked to groups of schools, providing support for students with mild or moderate difficulties and access to specialist help for pupils with more serious problems is also something Samaritans would support.

The timing is a cause for concern though, as this would take four to five years to be rolled out to just a quarter of schools, at most. Schools are already concerned that they don’t have the resources to deliver the proposals, so proper funding is vital.

Finally, there is no mention of the value of listening in the Government’s Green Paper on Children and Young People’s Mental Health. People need to feel listened to, they need to feel their voices are heard. Samaritans 20,000 volunteers spend thousands of hours listening to people and can testify to the fact that listening is an invaluable tool to give people space to find a way through their problems.

If we are really serious about making far reaching changes in children and young people’s lives, and we should be, we need to be prepared to be bold and take everyone along with us, as the benefits will be immense.