Samaritans CEO Ruth Sutherland champions the importance of teaching children and young people emotional resilience from an early age, as NHS Digital reveals new data on young people's mental health.
There is an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. A report released today by NHS Digital about the mental health of children and young people in England suggests the village needs to be doing better.
The report, based on information about more than 9,000 young people in England aged 2-19, shows that we urgently need to pay attention to providing appropriate and timely support.
An increase in emotional distress in girls at 17 – 19 highlights the importance of teaching emotional resilience at a young age. As Samaritans, we know that learning to manage your emotions is as important as learning to read and write and is too important to be left to life experience alone.
We also know that transitions generally can be a tricky time, whether that’s moving schools, entering the workplace, or going onto further training or study. This report suggests putting appropriate support in place at those key times could have a preventative effect.
We have been going into schools and colleges to provide information and raise awareness of emotional health and the importance of communication and support for more than 50 years. And we’ve been providing teaching materials through our Developing Emotional Awareness and Listening (DEAL) resources since 2005.
Children learn a lot about feelings and how to manage them (or not) at home. However, young people spend a great deal of their time in education. Schools and colleges have the opportunity to develop knowledge and skills around emotional resilience through their everyday culture, as well as through the curriculum.
Being able to talk about suicidal thoughts is essential. It’s the first step on the road to being able to understand them and find the most appropriate support available. There is evidence that thoughts of suicide, plans and attempts increase from adolescence onwards for some people, so the support available needs to reflect that.
Young people can only get help if they feel able to speak out, and feel safe to do so, whether it is to their parents, teachers, friends, or to a support service like Samaritans. If being open about the way you feel is reinforced and is part of school culture, as well as wider society, then it can help to improve the wellbeing and future outcomes of all young people.
Embedding wellbeing in the curriculum, as part of a holistic programme for good mental health, could make a huge difference to future generations, who have to deal with challenging issues, including navigating social media, which didn’t exist in the past.
Schools need to involve everyone, from the admin staff, parent volunteers and kitchen staff, to the head and all the teaching staff, in developing a mentally healthy community.
However, it is not just about schools, we need to look at the wider landscape that our young people are growing up in. Samaritans’ Dying from Inequality report shows that a lack of education and employment opportunities can increase suicide risk.
Every adult who works with young people needs to have skills, understanding and, importantly, the time to recognise signs that a young person is struggling and the space to support them, so that young people can be helped before they reach a crisis, begin self-harming or try to take their own life.
Sensitivity is crucial when talking to children and young people about suicide and self-harm – talking openly reassures people who are struggling that it is okay to talk about what’s happening to them – and then they can begin to work out strategies to get through their low times safely.
The distinction between life online and offline doesn’t exist for young people in the same way as it does for older generations. So emotional health education needs to acknowledge that and equip young people with skills to cope in an online world.
Signposting to online support and sharing positive stories also helps to empower young people to recognise harmful online content, increase their ability to make positive choices and seek help if needed.
We will all go through difficult times in our lives. But we don’t have to be buffeted and washed up by the tides of fortune, we can make our own lifeboat to ride the waves.
Resilience – built by putting together coping strategies to help us through difficult times – is an essential life skill. Developing such skills in children and young people is an investment in the future.
It is essential to let young people know that it is okay to talk and that there are people out there who will listen to you without judgement. Samaritans volunteers, who respond to more than 5 million requests for help a year, can testify to the value of talking and listening.
Although not as high as the peak in the 1980s, suicides among teenagers have been rising in the last seven years. So, we need to start conversations as early as possible in young people’s lives. If we wait until they are older, it could be too little, too late.
A holistic approach to emotional health and wellbeing will develop a positive, supportive culture where we all feel safe and able to talk about our feelings and to look after our friends as well as ourselves. We are still breaking down stigma, educating young people about emotional health will help that.
Exploring emotional health also helps to foster empathy in young people, so they can look out more for their friends. It is part of the kinder society that we all want to build and, in the long term, could help to make the village a much better place to grow up and live in for us all.