A mental health first aid kit for parents: Who to ask and what to do

Welcome to the Parents' Toolkit

According to charity The Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems affect around one in six children and include things like depression, anxiety and conduct disorder (a type of behavioural problem). The charity says eating disorders and self-harm also commonly occur in children.

A Parents’ Toolkit opinion poll, commissioned in partnership with parenting website Netmums, revealed that nearly 1 in 3 parents have noticed a deterioration in their child's mental health over the past 6 months and while 50% of parents would ask a health practitioner/teacher or other qualified expert for help - of the respondents who said their child has experienced challenges with their mental health - 37% said “I have experienced barriers in seeking help for my mental health issue in my child

1. What to do when you’re concerned about your child's mental health

You may have noticed changes in your child - changes of mood, altered sleeping patterns, withdrawal from family life and/or friendship groups. These could be signs that they're experiencing anxiety or other issues around their mental health.

If you're concerned about your child’s mental health, you can speak to their school or GP. The GP may refer your child to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), which provides specialist care from psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses and social workers. Between 2020-2021 the average wait for mental health services in England was more than two months. Here are some things you can do whilst you and your child are waiting to access these services.

  • Keep speaking to your GP

Your GP will be able to regularly listen to your child, discuss your own concerns and suggest local services that may be of help. Don't be afraid of going back to your GP if you feel you need more support and advice.

  • Speak to your child’s school

Arrange to meet the pastoral team at your child's school, or encourage your child to seek out and speak to them. They might be able to help make school easier or less pressured for your child.

  • Look into local services

Local charities can be a good source of support. Search online for nearby support groups and charities. Alternatively, national mental health charity Chasing the Stigma runs the ‘Hub of Hope’ website, which allows you to search easily for local mental health charities.

  • Try and stay healthy

Where possible, try and encourage your child (and your whole family) to eat healthily, get some exercise and a good night’s sleep. If they’re having trouble sleeping, gentle activities like reading, walking or drawing and art may help them to relax.

2. What to do in a mental health emergency

According to the NHS, a mental health emergency is when your child feels like they may seriously harm themselves or someone else, they feel suicidal or are in extreme distress. There are different services you can access, depending on the severity of the situation. They are listed below from less severe to the most severe scenario.

  • Call or text a charity

If your child is under 19 and needs to talk to someone, they can call Childline on 0800 1111. Or they can text YM to 85258 for free 24/7 support. You can also call the YoungMinds parents helpline.

  • Call a local NHS urgent mental health line

These helplines in England are free and can offer 24-hour advice and support for your child. You can speak to a mental health professional about your child and get an assessment to help decide on the best course of care. In Scotland NHS24 has links to services, while people in Wales can access these helplines and in Northern Ireland there is Lifeline. To find one local to you, type ‘local urgent mental health’ into your search engine.

  • Call 111

If you cannot speak to your local NHS urgent mental health helpline or you’re unsure what to do, call 111. This number is for when you urgently need help for your child’s mental health, but it isn't an emergency. You may be able to ask for an emergency appointment or speak to a mental health nurse over the phone.

  • Call 999

If your child or someone else’s life is at risk, call 999. For example, if they've taken an overdose or seriously injured themselves, or if you don't feel you can keep yourself, your child or someone else safe.

This is really important. The NHS website states: “A mental health emergency should be taken as seriously as a physical one. You will not be wasting anyone's time.”

3. General tips for helping your child through a mental health crisis

Try to remain calm and positive with your child. Remember to be kind to yourself too – if you do lose your patience, apologise to your child and forgive yourself. Every child is different so you’ll need to tailor your actions depending on the age of your child and their particular circumstances.

  • Try to keep to 'life as usual'

Keep everyday routines going where possible. Be realistic about what you can achieve. Talk to your child and agree with them about how best to let the important people in your child’s life know what is happening with them.

  • Make a plan together

Keep it simple, a day at a time in manageable steps, so today is better than yesterday. Focus on what helps and avoid what doesn't. Try and stick to the plan, making sensible changes as you go along. Make a plan for emergencies too, so that you all know what to do if it's needed.

  • Keep listening to them

It's important to listen to your child, rather than necessarily offering advice. Follow your child’s lead and encourage them to share so that they know you really understand. Speaking less and listening more helps you understand how your child feels, and helps them know you realise what they’re going through.

  • Look after yourself

Take care of your own wellbeing so that you can be there for your child, especially when everyone is having a hard time. Talk to other adults about your worries and frustrations, but try not to overshare with your kids.

For more advice on looking after your family’s mental health, there are some useful tips in this series of animations Families Under Pressure, developed by King’s College London, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and The Maudsley Charity.

There are other helplines, textlines and online services available that you and your child can look at together:

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