Category Archives: mental health

Talking about mental illness with children

 

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Although mental health is high on the agenda, with many people including celebrities talking about their mental illness and an increasing awareness of mental illness in teens; I think as a society it can still be hard to talk to children about mental illness. I think there is still a worry that if we use the words depression and mental illness, that children will not understand or become fearful. Even with all the discussion and acknowledgment about mental illness, with new celebrities and sports stars coming out each day talking about their struggles, I still think there is a stigma. Sadly I think there is still pain and shame felt amongst families when they talk about the mental illness in their family. A friend of mine Will Taylor is an excellent child counselor, he has recently written about his own struggle with depression and how some people have told him they wouldn’t want to go a counselor who has had depression. To me, this suggests that some people still view mental illness as something that is shameful.

I firmly believe we need to talk to children from a young age about mental illness, we need to use the correct language and help them to understand what is happening, by doing this we break down the stigma. Obviously, we need to do this in an age appropriate way, in a way which helps the child to not be scared but to give them enough information to help them to understand what is going on. A common held misbelieve is that children will not notice, they will not be aware when a parent or loved one becomes depressed. However, we know that children pick up on the smallest of changes, they know when something is different. I grew up with a mum who has Bi-polar, I was a child in the 70’s when depression was never spoken about. I have memories of being 5 and recognising the warning signs that she was becoming ill, they were small, but I noticed. She would give us extra money to buy sweets, she would start baking lots, this was always the begining of a manic episode. These sound like tiny changes but I noticed. My Dad talked about my mum being ill, but it wasn’t until I was 14 in a school assembly that Mind was leading, and I heard the term mental illness and realised that was what my Mum had. Until then I had presumed she had cancer and that she would die. If we do not use the correct words with children, if we do not explain what is happening, then children will fill in the missing gaps, and often get it wrong. Our role as adults is to help children to understand that depression, anxiety, bi-polar, schizophrenia etc are all mental illness, they are not something to be afraid of, or to be ashamed of, we can talk about it.

I do appreciate that it can be really hard to find the words to help a child understand, for me that is where books and films can be so helpful. I have written two books and an animation for children of different ages to help them understand Bi-polar. But there are a growing number of good resources about depression. Below I have listed and linked some of the ones I really like. On Wednesday this week, it is mental health day, there will be lots of discussions all week about mental illness, and that is great, but I would like to encourage people to talk to children as well.

 

Mummy’s Got Bippolar– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Can I tell you about Bipolar Disorder– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Mummys’ Got Bipolar animation

Can I tell you about anxiety- Lucy Willets and Polly Waite

Why are you so sad: A child’s book about parental depression– Beth Andrews

I had a black dog – Matthew Johnstone

Pretend Friends: A story about schizophrenia and other illnesses can cause hallucinations- Alice Hoyle

The wise mouse- Virgina Ironside

The illustrated Mum- Jaqueline Wilson

 

 

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The joy with large, wild and deserted spaces

 

IMG_0005I have just spent the last week with my family visiting three islands Arran, Islay, and Jura. It has been a week of slowness, exploration and wild swimming. All 3 islands are beautiful and abound with wildlife. Significant amounts of time were spent watching and noticing, looking for golden eagles, trying to spot otters, laughing at seals playing, noticing hares run by, seeing highland cows on the beach and family swimming in freezing cold water and loving the experiences. This week I have really enjoyed the wide open spaces that the islands provide and I have loved the quietness and lack of people!.

I spend half of my working week supporting children in school who are finding life challenging. This is a wonderful but also at times intense job, involving lots of emotional regulation, being present for staff and children. By the end of the school year, I am aware that I long for space, quiet, fewer people. I also spent a lot of time talking and writing about wellbeing. By the end of July, I know that for my own wellbeing I need to be outside, fully embraced and surrounded by nature for an extended period of time. I have learned over the years how restorative being in nature is. Florence Williams in her the book The Nature Fix: Why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative, explores evidence from across the world on how being in nature helps our mental and physical wellbeing. She talks about a recent increase in the idea of Forest bathing in Japan, this is basically about people spending time in forests. It is viewed in Japan as a preventive therapy, as a way of counteracting ‘karoshi’ which means death from overwork. The effects of being in forests have been measured with hundreds of people by Chiba University researchers. Their research showed that a casual walk in a forest had a 12.7% decrease on the participant’s cortisol levels and 103 % increase in the parasympathetic nervous activity ( Relax state) (Williams 2017).

Over the next few weeks I will be writing, planning, thinking and dreaming about the next academic year and beyond. I hope that this time spent in truly wild places has helped my creative thought processes.

The need to support colleagues

 

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When you are working with vulnerable children, there are some weeks which are truly challenging. I have just come to the end of one of those weeks, to be honest for a whole assortment of reasons it is one I would be happy to not repeat again. What has made this week bearable has been the emotional support from my amazing colleagues and manager.

I have been reflecting a lot on how we can support colleagues and what that can look like. Having the support from colleagues and managers can make such a difference. When you are working with vulnerable children, who are telling you in a multitude of ways they are hurting and sad, this can have a huge impact on staff. It can lead staff to question themselves, it can feed into their own vulnerabilities, it can leave staff feeling hugely stressed and sometimes traumatised. It is essential that colleagues and managers recognise this and support the staff.

I think there are a few things colleagues can do, these include:

Enable the member of staff to get 5 minutes break, offer to take the child/ class and encourage them to get a drink and take some time to breathe. Tell them it is ok that they finding this hard.

Check in with staff at the end of the day and a few days later. Ask how they are, ask how they are feeling.

Remind staff to take time out at the end of the day/ on the weekend to take care of themselves, this might be spending time in the garden, going for a walk or a run, reading a book, anything which enables them to slow down, breathe and be kind to themselves.

Give time and space to talk through what has happened, this is where supervision is so important. If you can’t provide this as a school/ nursery/ team then signpost to where they can go. Some organisations have a free telephone helpline to talk things through, others bring in outside supervisors. Supervision is crucial.

What made a difference for me this week was the support of colleagues and particularly the fantastic support of my manager. Also after one particularly challenging morning I  spent time in a stream, standing, breathing, being still, enjoying the sounds and feel of the water, that made such a difference to my wellbeing.

Small steps to wellbeing

 

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Over the last few weeks, I have had many conversations with friends and colleagues about adult wellbeing. Within early years it has been high on the agenda again with a report form Preschool learning alliance showing that 1 in 4 people in the sector is considering leaving due to high stress.

Through conversations over these last few weeks, I have been reminded how hearing about wellbeing and knowing about the need for good wellbeing can sometimes feel very overwhelming if we are in a place of high stress and despair. I am beginning to wonder if actually, all the talk of having high stress and the need to have good wellbeing can sometimes lead us to feel inadequate and more stressed. I have heard speakers and read many articles where we are being told that we need to look after our mental health, we need to talk about feeling stressed, however sometimes all the ideas and solutions can also feel overwhelming,

Over the last few weeks, I spoke at Preschool learning alliance conference and on a podcast for Early Years TV with Kathy Brodie ( this will be out in a few months). My main reflection on both of these is that is ok to take small steps to well-being. Sometimes we can feel too overwhelmed to try the many different ideas, but if we can put one thing in place each day, this is making a small step towards improving things. I often encourage people to do each day one thing which makes them feel happy, this might be going for walk, reading a book, sitting in the garden for 5 minutes with a cup of tea. It will be different for everyone, but finding one thing each day which makes you happy, which helps you to smile, this won’t solve all your wellbeing issues but it is taking a small step towards a change.

For me swimming and wild swimming makes me smile, it helps me to feel alive and joyful and makes me feel really happy.

You can find more ideas for staff wellbeing in my book Promoting Emotional wellbeing for early years staff

Sitting with sadness and sorrow

 

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This last week has been a roller coaster of highs and lows. I have been reflecting the last few days on the need to sit with sadness and sorrow and how hard that can sometimes be. This week my parents have both been ill, with my dad having a heart operation which didn’t go to plan. I have also been working with children who have been deeply sad. Sometimes in life, you can’t fix things, I can’t fix my dad’s heart or my mum’s depression and sometimes I can not make it ok for the children I work with.

There are times when all I can do is sit with the pain and the sadness, there are times when there are no words to be said, there is no easy fix, we just need to sit and be. Being present, being there in body and mind.

But I can find that really hard, I am certainly a person who will suggest, offer ideas, in my work I spend my time offering thoughts and ideas to staff to support the children. I don’t fix things but I journey with the children and staff and find a way through. However sometimes there are no suggestions to make, sometimes you need to just be, to hold someone and let them cry, to show them you are there, at that moment, with them.

Sitting with sadness and sorrow can be tiring and hard. I have been very mindful of that, and very intentional to care for myself, my main way has been spending lots of time outside this week; walking in woods, walking alongside water, noticing flowers and birds.

Talking about mental health

 

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Talking about mental health is hard, my mum has Bi-polar disorder. I spent years as a child and teenager feeling embarrassed that my mum was different, back then she spent several times a year in the hospital, hospitalisation is what they did then. I eventually found out the name for my mum’s illness, but that didn’t really help me, the name didn’t tell me how to support her or what support she needed, the name didn’t give me or my sister any support. So I learned, I read everything I could, I spoke to consultants, I spoke to Gp ’s, I spoke to mental health nurses, I spent my late teens and early 20’s finding out everything I could. I wanted to know if I would also develop Bi-polar, I wanted to know about the medication and what it did and how it affected her behavior, I wanted to know if my children would get Bi-polar.

Over the years I started to insist on naming what Mum had, I realised it was nothing to be shameful of and that families needed to be able to talk about it. The other reason to talk about it is that where there is a mental illness, families need support. They may not always need support; but when a parent is having a bad episode the schools need to know so that they can offer more emotional support to the child. If an adult is having a low time they need friends to support them.

We know that poor mental health effects so many people, in so many ways, and it is unbelievably hard for the person with the illness. But it also affects the family and the people supporting the person. Mental illness can put huge strains on the whole family.

I still think we need to get better at working out how to support families/ people where there is mental illness. We still need to get better at talking about it.

Over the last few years, I have written 2 children’s books, one for younger children- Mummy’s Got Bipolar and one for older children- Can I tell you about Bi-polar Disorder. The aim of the books is to help inform children and adults about Bi-polar. One of these books has also been turned into a free animation. Links are below:

 

Mummy’s Got Bipolar

Mummy’s Got Bipolar animation

Can I tell you about Bi-polar Disorder?

 

 

Looking after your wellbeing over Christmas

 

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We know that the run-up to Christmas can be very stressful for many. If you work with children and young people this also a tricky time of year with extra colds, illness and very excited children can lead to staff feeling extremely tired, worn down and having low wellbeing

The Christmas holidays can be both emotionally and physically draining, that is particularly hard if you are already feeling worn down and not at your best. I think it is important to think about a few things you can put in place to look after your own wellbeing. This doesn’t need to be time consuming or expensive, but by stopping and thinking about yourself, your health and how you feel, this could help you get through the Christmas period.

Below are a few suggestions on what might help your wellbeing over the next days and weeks

Eat well- make sure each day you eat something which is good for you and makes you feel good. Food which is classed as good mood foods are- blueberries, avocado, kale, marmite, sweet potato, spinach, dark chocolate, chamomile tea

Sleep well– we need around 8 hrs sleep a night, sleep enables us to have clear minds and make memories.

Spend time outside– there is growing research to show the positive impact spending time outside has on our brain, emotional and physical wellbeing. If possible get outside every day, even if it is only for 5 minutes.

Be kind to yourself- so often we can put high expectations on ourselves, we can be self-critical about things not being perfect or not getting enough done. Think about the words you use on yourself, take time to notice these and if they are negative change them, tell yourself that what you are doing is good enough, remind yourself it is ok to feel tired, you will get through this.

Do something that makes you happy -do something each day which makes you happy and is for you. When I asked people what they did that made them happy the list was varied, some ideas were- swimming, crochet, bake, read, listen to music, garden, walk my dog, mindfulness, yoga, paint, run, sing.

Experience some silence– our lives are so busy, particularly at this time of year. Having time to stop, be silent, experience stillness, even for 5 minutes, can be very good for our wellbeing. Some people use mindfulness, yoga or spiritual practices for this, others just enjoy the silence while in the bath, or during a walk by themselves. Experiencing silence can be liberating and can help you to find some calmness.

 

Whatever you do over Christmas, I hope you find some time to look after yourself, this is not a selfish act but it is an important part helping our own wellbeing.

If you would like more ideas and further writing on this subject, I have a new book out this week –Promoting emotional wellbeing in early years staff published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. The ideas in the book are suitable for everyone, not just early years workers.