“Normalisation is Key”: How to Spot Post-Pandemic Poor Mental Health in Young People
World Mental Health Day on 10th October, shows how 2021 mental health struggles have increased in young people following the pandemic. One of Schoen Clinic UK’s leading Consultant Psychiatrists Dr James Woolley, highlights the signs to look out for, as well as how to address the problem without alienating sufferers further.
Following the last year and a half of lockdowns, the UK government has released research suggesting young people’s mental health and wellbeing has been substantially impacted due to and during the pandemic. Data released by the Royal College of Psychiatrists shows that 28% more children and young people (that’s over 80,000) were referred to mental health services between April and December 2020 than in 2019 and that the number of treatment sessions given to them was up by a fifth in 2020, compared to the previous year.
Schoen Clinic Day Centre for Mental Health Chelsea treats patients aged 11+ for eating disorders and those aged 18+ for anxiety and depression disorders. With expertise and training in treating anxiety, depression, psychosis and bipolar disorder (amongst other conditions), Consultant Psychiatrist Dr James Woolley addresses the effects a year and a half of disrupted routines and lockdowns may have had on young people’s mental health, particularly as some settle into a new academic year, whether at school, college or university.
In honour of World Mental Health Day, organised by the Mental Health Foundation, Dr Woolley shares his insights on how to spot signs of declining mental health as well as what parents and carers can do to help those in need.
1. What were the main mental strains the pandemic posed on young people?
There are a wide range of ways in which the pandemic has had a clear impact on young people, ranging from disrupting social networks and development, family relationships and educational challenges along with threat to long-held goals. For some, this was most apparent earlier on in initial lockdowns, but for many was a much more delayed effect – especially noticeable in early 2021 and continuing throughout this year – and has shown itself in different ways throughout the various stages of lockdown easing and the attempts to resume normal activities. It's important to bear in mind that different individuals are experiencing this at different speeds, so it's difficult to generalise about it because "young people" are all different. Individual responses are much more important and can be quite variable.
2. How might this affect how students feel about going back into education?
At the moment, some of the earlier, more depressive, reactions are giving way to anxiety around restarting old activities (especially educational and social). Some are fine and looking forward to it, whereas others are viewing it with apprehension. There is considerable uncertainty even once schooling gets back underway as, although there is not the large-scale disruption apparent before the summer, Covid infection rates remain high and increasing, and many are currently aware of friends or teachers who continue to frequently test positive. This means the risk of reverting to homeschooling is still there, which is perhaps not so apparent in media coverage at the moment. The risk of disrupted education remains significant despite the best efforts of educational institutions at the moment.
3. What signs do you think parents/ carers should look out for if they're worried about a young person’s mental health?
Changes in usual personality remains key, they clearly can be difficult to spot, especially if this involves withdrawal from social contact and isolation. Disturbed sleep patterns, changed appetite and especially changes in social relationships maybe early warning signs, though can be concealed until quite advanced.
4. What is the best way for parents/ carers to speak to young people about their mental health?
Trying to maintain open communication remains just as important in a pandemic phase as at other times. Speaking in non-stigmatising language, normalising different people’s experiences and how encountering symptoms of depression or anxiety can be quite normal in these sorts of circumstances are all key. Finding opportunities to also describe how people can often go through difficult patches, but recover and regain their momentum, can be very useful in maintaining optimism and encouraging people to ask for help sooner. If there is a feeling that nothing can be done, or little can change, then why even ask for help?! Just having a conversation about how these sorts of experiences can be quite normal is a significant benefit in itself and, in many cases, may be all that is needed to reduce any sense of isolation and stigma and for a young person to feel there is support around if they need it.
5. When should they seek the help of a professional such as yourself?
Speaking with friends, lecturers, teachers, parents etc. is usually the most helpful first step. Beyond this, there may be counsellors at school, college or university linked with community groups, and within the health service - the first port of call will be your GP. Many GP surgeries have counsellors linked with them where it is possible to arrange some sessions directly. Many areas also have open-access NHS psychological therapy services (sometimes called IAPT teams), many of which accept self-referrals and can deliver psychological support via phone and video consultations.
At Schoen Clinic Chelsea, we have a range of therapists who can help on an individual basis, and for even more intensive treatment there is a varied programme of group therapy for adults and a young person's programme for eating difficulties. This is sometimes an even more powerful way to reduce isolation and stigma in mental health difficulties and engage in treatment with the additional support of others going through similar challenges.