Mental health disorders represent the largest single cause of disability in the UK, with 1 in 4 adults thought to experience at least 1 diagnosable mental health issue in any given year. But what about the mental health of children and adolescents?

According to the NHS, 1 in 10 children aged 5 - 16 has a diagnosable issue such as conduct disorder, anxiety disorder or depression, with half of all mental health issues in children established by the time they reach the age of 14. Children from low-income families are most at risk, and are 3 times more likely to develop a mental health disorder than those from the highest-income families.

Yet back in 2014, a survey carried out for MindEd - a website funded by the Department of Health that aims to raise awareness of children and young people's mental health - suggested thousands may be slipping through the net because parents and other adults are unable to spot the warning signs of mental health disorders in children. The Mental Health Foundation also claims that 70% of children and young people who experience a mental health disorder have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.

According to the NSPCC, while all children are different, some of the common signs of mental health disorders include the following:

  • Becoming withdrawn from friends and family
  • Persistent low mood and unhappiness
  • Tearfulness and irritability
  • Worries that stop them carrying out day-to-day tasks
  • Sudden outbursts of anger directed at themselves or others
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Problems eating or sleeping

Events such as moving school, moving home or having a new baby in the house may also trigger issues for children and young people who are already vulnerable. Some children and young people are also more likely to experience mental health disorders than others, including those whose parents are separated or divorced, those who have experienced a close bereavement, those who have been bullied or physically or sexually abused, and those with a long-term physical illness or educational difficulties.

What should you do?

If you notice any of these signs in your child, or if you believe their mood is affecting the way they function on a day-to-day basis, the first thing you should do is talk to them about what may be troubling them. 

Some children find it difficult to talk to their parents about their emotions, so try to encourage them to open up gently. Give them lots of reassurance and, even if their problem seems trivial to you, remember it may be a big issue for them.

If, after talking to them you still feel worried, it may be time to take them to see your family GP, who can, if necessary, refer your child for specialist help.

The NSPCC website has lots more advice on how to talk to your child about a difficult issue.

You may also want to speak to someone at your child's school, such as the person in charge of child protection or a teacher your child is fond of. Most schools these days are familiar with mental health disorders in children, and they may even have a member of staff who is trained to speak to pupils who are struggling. It may also put your mind at rest to know there are those who can keep an eye on your child while they're at school during the daytime.

It's also a good idea to let your child know about Childline, the free and confidential service run by the NSPCC to help UK-based children and young people under the age of 19 who need emotional support. Your child can talk to trained Childline counsellors at any time of the day or night by calling 0800 1111 (calls are free), or by chatting to a counsellor via the Childline website. If your child registers online with Childline, they can email counsellors and get a reply within a day.

There are also a number of other organisations that offer help and advice to children and young people as well as their parents and carers, such as YoungMinds (call 0808 802 5544 for the parents helpline), Kidscape (for children experiencing bullying) and Family Lives.

How to boost their mental health

As a parent, you know how important it is to take care of your child's physical health. But their emotional wellbeing needs to be nurtured too, as it can help them to develop the resilience they need to cope with everything life may throw at them when they grow up.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, the following can help children and young people stay mentally well:

  • Being in good physical health, eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise
  • Having time and the freedom to play, indoors and outdoors
  • Being part of a family that gets along well most of the time
  • Going to a school that looks after the wellbeing of all its pupils
  • Taking part in local activities for young people

Other factors, says the Mental Health Foundation, are also important to children's mental health, such as feeling loved, trusted, understood, valued and safe, as well as having a sense of belonging and feeling they have some control over their lives.

If you or a member of your family needs to talk about mental health, our free emotional support services are available 24/7. We can provide counselling online, over the phone and face to face. Just call +44 (0) 1788 556 366 or chat to an advisor online 24 hours a day.

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