An expert explains: How to talk to children about mental health

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • The world is facing a mental health crisis for children and adolescents, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and historic underfunding.
  • One in seven 10-19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder, according to the World Health Organization.
  • The World Economic Forum’s UpLink platform is launching a new challenge to source innovations that use digital technologies to help improve youth mental health.
  • Here, pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist Dr. Hina Talib explains three ways to speak to children about their mental health.

“Mummy’s been having a lot of big feelings recently… I feel a bit confused… I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

These are lyrics from Adele’s 2021 song My Little Love, in which she speaks to a child about her mental health.

“I’m having a bad day, I’m having a very anxious day… I feel very paranoid, I feel very stressed,” the singer says.

It can be hard knowing how to talk to your children openly about your own mental health as well as theirs, but these are conversations that are increasingly important around the world, as people try to cope with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes – promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

The mental health impact of COVID-19 on children

Children and young people have been particularly hit by the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic, including school closures that, combined with historic underinvestment, have led to a mental health crisis.

As UK-based paediatrician Dr Ranj Singh told the World Economic Forum last year: “We must never forget that the mental health fallout from COVID is something that we’re going to be dealing with for quite some time now.

“This is especially true amongst the younger members of society who haven’t had that social or peer support and school support that kept them on track.”

One in seven 10-19-year-olds experience a mental disorder, according to the World Health Organization. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15-19 year-olds.

In the US, approximately 4.4 million children aged 3-17 had been diagnosed with anxiety even before the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How mental health affects children of different ages in the US.
How mental health affects children of different ages in the US. Image: CDC

But in most of the world, there is not the data available to develop effective policies and services or to allocate resources towards proven interventions to promote and protect mental health, according to the World Economic Forum’s UpLink platform.

UpLink, which pairs entrepreneurs with investors and support to accelerate solutions to global problems, is launching a new challenge to source innovations that use digital technologies to help improve youth mental health.

How to talk to your children about their mental health

For parents and carers who are trying to have those conversations with children about their own mental health, UK charity Mind offers advice. These tips include explaining as simply as possible how your mental health affects how you feel and how you behave, making regular time to talk to older children about how they are feeling and reassuring them that they are not responsible for how you feel.

Pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist Dr. Hina Talib tells UNICEF talking to your children about mental health starts with one moment and one question: What’s on your mind? Here she describes three things that could help.

1. Start from a positive place

“Tell your child you love and adore them. You could have the conversation when you’ve just shared a joke and laughed together, or enjoyed a favourite snack. Avoid having the conversation when emotions are already running high – or first thing in the morning, when you and your teen might not be on your best form.”

2. Try to listen more than you talk

“Listening is a difficult skill that takes practice, but it’s so important your child feels listened to. Try and say about half of what you had planned to say. Be aware that your initial reactions, a comment, an eye-roll, or a sigh, can have such a big impact on your child and future conversations about feelings. Try to take a deep breath before responding.”

3. Work in partnership with your child

“Ask their permission on how they would like you to respond before jumping in to offer advice. They may just want to vent, or they may want to figure out the next steps on their own, with your guidance as backup. The most important thing is to remind them that you’re on their team, no matter what.”

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