Written by Roger Sharp, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer for Bupa Australia.
Talking about mental health can be challenging – it is for me. And that challenge is not driven by a failure to understand or a detachment from any direct experience with mental health issues; quite the opposite. Several members of my close family have battled depression, one is bi-polar, and many others have had periods in their life where they’ve seriously struggled to cope.
The irony of the fact that I - someone who is a professional communicator – can find it difficult to talk about mental health is also not lost on me.
But if I, a fully-grown, and some might say mature, adult, finds it tough how agonising must it be for a child or teenager already in the throes of growing pains and dealing with the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies the transition to adulthood?
As a kid growing up in New Zealand, I can’t recall the term ‘mental health’ being used at home or in school. The traditional Kiwi response tended to be, particularly if you were male, that you simply needed to ‘toughen up’ and ‘get on with it’. Unsurprising, the tragedy of New Zealand’s stratospherically high suicide rates was also something the country, and local communities, rarely discussed.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I learnt about the importance of good mental health, and even then I came across information and advice purely by chance, and in snippets. No one told me that mental wellbeing was a fundamental part of ‘being human’ and that if you’re struggling with your mental wellbeing there’s lots of ways to get help.
Thankfully now the evidence is both clear and undisputed - left unresolved, mental health problems can significantly affect children and young people’s social and educational development, creating problems that will continue into adult life. That’s why early intervention is so important, by acting early we can profoundly and positively influence an individual’s relationships and future employment prospects.
Thankfully a huge amount of progress has been made over recent years, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on mental health as never before. I’ve noticed a tangible shift in our society’s willingness to talk about, and acknowledge, mental health issues during 2020. People are now more openly discussing issues of anxiety, stress and depression. Look for ‘mental health help’ online and you will find over 780 million pages of content with services offering help and support to young people and their families.
But whilst the support services have grown, so too has the size of the problem. Recent surveys reveal that mental health issues amongst the young are much worse now than they were 30 years ago. The impact of social media, social distancing and 21st century life has disrupted traditional family routines and community life and contributed to increased feelings of loneliness and isolation in many children. At a time when technology has made it easier than ever to be connected, why are so many of our children still feeling so anxious and alone?
Providing support in both mental and non-mental health settings is one way in which we can try and reach vulnerable children more effectively. Opening up these conversations at school, at home, while kids are doing activities with their friends and peers can make for a more meaningful and open two-way dialogue.
This concept has helped inform the work that the Bupa Health Foundation in Australia is doing with our charity partner Kids Helpline. Our partnership is helping to deliver mental health information and support in both the classroom and online, places where many kids spend much of their time.
I’m especially excited about the online support being offered through a digital platform called My Circle. Some children remain reluctant to ask for help from parents or teachers, My Circle seeks to address this by offering a safe, anonymous space to share experiences with peers in the form of online group counselling. A qualified counsellor is also always on hand to provide extra support.
An old saying goes “nothing disinfects like sunlight”, and my advice to anyone, young or old, is to seek help if you’re struggling.
None of us can predict the scale of the mental health challenges that will arise from the COVID-19 pandemic, but if one good thing is to come out of it then I hope it is a wake-up call to the need for ongoing commitment, imagination and understanding when it comes to mental health.
For more information on the My Circle digital platform visit Kids Helpline Australia.