Supporting somebody with mental health difficulties

Childhood and teenage years are a time of rapid and constant change. Young people often have to cope with many different situations and unfamiliar challenges like exams, relationships and the other pressures of growing up.

While it’s possible for some young people to talk to parents or carers about their feelings, others find it hard. They might express their difficult feelings through being very emotional, moody or withdrawing from friends, family and previously enjoyed activities. Some find themselves getting in trouble at school or at home; other find themselves becoming angry too easily. Others might notice physical sensations like headaches or nausea when they’re not able to say what they’re feeling.

For many young people, these experiences pass quickly. But for others, they get in the way of life, prevent them from learning, developing relationships and enjoying life and can develop into mental health problems.

Some young people might experience difficulties that are severe or long lasting, and might find themselves reacting to setbacks in a more extreme way. They might tell parents or friends they’re distressed or unable to cope, or they might hint that they are and hope adults notice and speak to them. This can lead to getting the necessary support. 

Often though, young people might show distress through acting differently, with more intense moods or behaviour at home, at school or with friends. Others might notice changes in eating patterns or that they aren’t looking after themselves. At times of difficulty, many young people experience disrupted sleep, which can mean not being able to sleep, or sleeping too much.

If the young person is able to carry on their usual life and doesn’t experience lasting unpleasant feelings, the best help is for parents, relatives or friends to be available to listen, talk things through and to support them where they can. There is also help available in schools, colleges or in the local community, such as counselling services which can be face to face or accessed on-line.

If you’re concerned that a young person is struggling with their mental health, there are a number of things you can do to help them.

  • Encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling; this is sometimes easier when doing an activity such as walking or cooking
  • Listen to them in a non-judgmental, non-critical way; try not to worry about saying the wrong thing, just listen
  • Spend time with them doing the things they enjoy; this might include watching their favourite TV show or watching them/joining them on their  games console; use this time to talk about things other than your concerns about their mental health
  • Reach out to them in everyday ways, such as inviting them out, texting, tagging them in a meme
  • Encourage connection with others (maintaining friendships and family time), being physically active, attending school, giving to others and using mindfulness activities
  • Offer to help find more information and offer to go with them to get further advice or information.

If your child, friend or sibling is unwilling to talk, or refuses to seek help and you’re worried that they might be at risk in some way (for example, if they are talking of ending their life, not eating or if they seem preoccupied with odd beliefs or ideas), you should explain to them that you need to share your concerns and get some help and advice from a trusted adult or healthcare professional. This might seem hard to do but many young people report that when this happens, it can make them feel more cared for, safe and supported.

There is a lot of help available in your local community. You can find information about this in the ‘Local Offer’.

Occasionally, young people’s feelings or moods might be so extreme or upsetting that they need urgent help. If a young person’s difficulties are having a significant impact on their life (such as not going school, isolating themselves from friends and family for long periods) and this feeling continues for some time they might need to get help.

If you become aware that they’re self-harming or having suicidal thoughts, they might need further help from ‘Child and adolescent mental health services’ (CAMHS).

Referral to CAMHS should be made urgently if you believe there’s a significant risk to the young person or others as a result of their mental health issues.

You can find additional support online or by phone:

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