Coronavirus spotlight: supporting children and young people’s positive mental health

Claire Dorris, Senior Research & Policy Analyst at NCB, considers the wellbeing issues facing children and young people during this unprecedented time.

No matter your situation, this is a difficult and worrying time for us all.  While understandably much of the current focus is on supporting physical wellbeing, this is inextricably linked to mental wellbeing.

More than ever, we all - parents, practitioners, friends, wider family, and policy influencers - have a role to play in supporting children and young people to stay emotionally healthy.

What are the issues?

  • It’s a lonely time: opportunities for children and young people to get together with their peers - youth groups, sports clubs, and school – have all stopped abruptly. Technology is helping many of us to stay connected, but this doesn’t replace face to face time with friends. And of course, not every child or young person has access to the technology necessary to stay in touch, or the skills and competence to do so. For the more vulnerable, this may bring further disadvantage.
  • It’s a confusing time: Life as we know it has paused, and at the minute we are all unclear as to what will happen next, which news sources to trust, and what we can and can’t do.  And the situation is changing daily; it’s hard to keep up with leaving many of us bewildered.
  • It’s a sedentary time: Everyday activities such as playing in groups outside, hanging out with friends, or playing organised sports, have been put on hold. Physical exercise and fresh air contribute to wider wellbeing, yet without access to a garden or outdoor space, and with restrictions on exercise time, this can be difficult.
  • It’s an anxious time: the uncertainty around grades, school work and the ‘what next’ in terms of education has added to what is already a source of anxiety for many children and young people.  The change in exam plans may leave some pupils feeling they haven’t ‘given their best shot’.
  • It’s a sad time: Children and young people may be dealing with bereavement, without the opportunity to grieve in the ways we are used to.  They may have fears for sick or vulnerable family and friends, or be concerned for the wellbeing of parents working on the frontline. 
  • It’s a vulnerable time: For some children, school and organised groups and activities were a welcome escape from a home environment that is difficult for many reasons, and the teacher, other staff member or volunteer may have been the only adult they trust. Children who were vulnerable are still vulnerable, indeed perhaps more so.  Those who were receiving support services such as counselling may have to make do with virtual sessions – raising issues around lack of privacy to discuss sensitive topics.

In fact, many of the challenges of lockdown during the pandemic go against everything young people’s brains are expecting of them. Find out more in our blog Wired for Connection.

How can we support the children and young people closest to us?

Take time to listen and talk: Let them know that all feelings are normal - sad, anxious, lonely, overwhelmed, confused, and that adults feel them too. Encourage them to talk about how they are feeling, and share how you are feeling. For those who work with children and young people, make use of opportunities to stay in touch and check in with them if you can, particularly if you feel they may be more vulnerable.

Help them to stay informed: There are lots of useful sources of information on the current situation, as well as a steady stream of unhelpful, confusing and worrying information.  We can help children to navigate this by guiding them towards simple, clear and age-appropriate resources.  Encourage them to seek a few trusted sources and avoid over-engaging in the wider news-fest (this is useful advice for all of us!).

Focus on the positives: Acknowledge positive actions, identify small goals and celebrate their achievement, help young people to identify the challenges they are facing and make a plan to respond, develop a routine. These approaches and others contribute towards strength and resilience building.

Recognise signs of distress and seek help if necessary: emotional distress will look different for every child.  Pay attention to the children and young people in your life, and notice any changes in behaviour, e.g. changes in sleep patterns, becoming unusually quiet, or unusually difficult.  And remember that while health services are undoubtedly under immense pressure at the minute, normal services continue!  Always seek help where there are serious concerns about the mental health or wellbeing of a child or young person.

How can we plan for the future?

Physical health has traditionally been prioritised in policy and practice development. However, more recently, we have seen changes seeking to give mental health an equal footing.

At NCB, we were pleased to carry out research on behalf of the Departments of Health and Education, and the Public Health Agency, to inform the development of an Emotional Health and Wellbeing Framework for Children and Young People in Northern Ireland; this Framework is needed now more than ever.

We must continue to advocate for strategic direction to ensure the development of positive emotional health and wellbeing is prioritised alongside physical health, with effort focused on building skills such as resilience, self-esteem and self-regulation, so that children and young people are equipped to cope with challenging times, now and in the future.  

Useful links:

AWARE NI Covid-19 Outbreak: Looking after your mental health and wellbeing

MindWise: Coronovirus and mental health

Mind: Coronavirus and your wellbeing- for young people

Young Minds: Coronavirus and Mental Health

Public Health England: COVID-19: guidance on supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing

NHS/Every Mind Matters: Looking after children and young people during the coronavirus outbreak