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The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” This would incorporate the popular term of ‘positive mental health’ which is used to show contrast between good mental health and mental ill health.
Mental health is not the same as mental ill health, despite the fact that the two terms are often used interchangeably. Mental ill health refers to a state where an individual’s thoughts, feelings and emotions are subject to significant change. Those changes then impact the individual’s ability to go about normal daily tasks. Examples of conditions that occur due to mental ill health include depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety and eating disorders.
What is emotional well-being?
According to health professionals, the concept of mental well-being can be broken down into several parts, each of which is essential in enabling individuals to prevent the onset of mental health difficulties:
- Coping with stress.
- Managing emotions.
- Forming and maintaining friendships and relationships.
- Having an appropriate level of fitness and a good balanced diet.
- Dealing with experiences and life events with resilience.
- Feeling secure and supported.
Whilst these are assumed to be essential elements of good emotional well-being, it would be impossible for people to maintain all of these elements all the time but it is largely accepted that people are less likely to become mentally unwell if they can sustain most of them for most of the time.
Strategies for effective positive mental health and well-being
Most of the strategies that promote positive mental health and well-being in children are the same as they are for adults, for example:
- Healthy eating.
- Physical activity.
- Knowing the triggers for mental health difficulties.
- Avoiding alcohol and drugs.
- Sleeping well.
- Improving self-esteem.
- Sharing problems.
However, some are particularly useful for children and these include:
- Showing unconditional love.
- Enabling them to play.
- Setting appropriate boundaries and sticking to them.
- Enabling independence.
- Building a sense of belonging.
We will look at each one of these in more detail.
Eating the right foods can make someone feel better in general and this can increase their overall sense of well-being. When someone feels as though they are healthy this means that they are far more likely to be able to cope with stressful situations, as they will feel more agile and alert.
A good diet consists of a good mix of protein, carbohydrates, fats, water, vitamins and minerals, and parents are recommended to teach their children about the importance of a good diet from as young an age as possible. Parents can find information about this from their health visitor, GP or from reliable sources on the internet such as the NHS and Public Health England.
When someone does physical activity, their brain automatically releases ‘feel good’ hormones such as serotonin and this provides an immediate boost to how they feel.
Someone who feels happier is more likely to see events in their life in a more positive light and therefore is better able to cope with stress. It is advised that to stay healthy, someone does 30-45 minutes of exercise per day, which can be just going for a brisk walk – anything which makes the heart work harder than it normally would. However, with children, this amount of time can easily be made up by playing outdoors or by taking part in a sporting activity, even one that is informal such as having a kick about in the park.
Mindfulness including breathing exercises
Being mindful means that someone is able to ‘switch off’ and enable their mind to clear and be at peace as they are only focusing on what is happening now rather than dwelling on what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future.
This is not easy for people who are disposed to stress because their minds are often full of worries about their life. However, breathing techniques can be learnt that will increase their level of relaxation and possibly also allow them to leave their worries to one side, even if this is only for a brief period of time each day. Children can be taught mindfulness exercises from an early age; not only do they help children to relax but they also enable them to gain self-control over their emotions, especially strong emotions such as fear and anger.
Knowing the triggers of mental health problems
Working out what can trigger mental health problems such as stress and anxiety can also help people to maintain good levels of mental well-being, but this does not mean that an individual should avoid them as this can make the condition worse because it is never dealt with successfully.
Instead, if an individual knows what a trigger for stress and anxiety is and chooses to face that trigger, they can prepare themselves for what will happen and be able to rationalise the experience rather than suffer through it.
Parents and significant others can teach children how to be self-aware and how to recognise signs in themselves that they are not feeling mentally well and why this may be. This is not something that all children will be able to do right away but many will successfully learn to recognise and understand their feelings and how to speak up about them.
Avoiding alcohol and drugs
Unfortunately, some people will use alcohol and/or drugs as a negative coping strategy when they are trying to deal with the negative effects of a mental health problem. Whilst this may provide them with some form of temporary escape, misuse of alcohol and drugs, either prescribed or otherwise, will almost always cause more difficulties in the long term.
This applies just as much to children as it does to adults because children who become dependent on the temporary release that they get from the use of drugs or alcohol, may compound mental health problems with issues relating to addiction when they are older.
It is thought that approximately 30% of the UK’s population experiences insomnia or some other form of sleep disorder. Often, poor sleep comes about because of mental health problems and it increases the risk of these problems deteriorating as well as possibly causing physical health problems.
Lack of sleep means that people’s ability to focus is impacted and they are more likely to experience some form of memory problem, both of which can cause significant difficulties for learning, which can then have consequences in other areas such as conflict within the family unit about academic achievement. Poor sleep can also increase the risk of physical health problems, which may reduce overall feelings of well-being, especially for children who are unable to speak up about how they are feeling.
Having good levels of self-esteem is closely linked to having good mental health and well-being because it enables both adults and children to take positive risks and to be confident in their own abilities.
People who have low levels of self-esteem often see things in a negative light and are unable to change the way that they think and so a negative cycle of thinking is something that they become trapped in. Having good self-esteem also contributes to higher levels of resilience and enables children and adults to cope with adversity and be able to see a way of being able to move forwards.
A good support network refers to a group of individuals that a person can rely on when they are having difficulties. Sharing problems can help someone to see them in a more realistic light and can help to make them become more manageable.
Support networks may offer advice about how to cope with a problem or they may simply act as a sounding board for someone to talk about what is bothering them. Support networks for children may be completely informal such as their friends and family but for those who need it, the support may be more formal such as from a GP, health visitor or counsellor. Some children with mental health problems may have support from CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) or from other professionals whose role is to support them to successfully manage a mental health problem.
Showing unconditional love
Children need to know that they are loved and that no matter what they do, they will still have people around them who love and care for them even when they make mistakes. Unconditional love enables children to grow in confidence and self-esteem, which makes the onset of a mental health problem less likely.
Children who are shown unconditional love are also more likely to come from a supportive background where speaking up about problems is valued and where children know that if they have a problem that it will be taken seriously and will be acted on.
Enabling children to play
Play is a crucial aspect of children’s development and their early play sets the foundation for many aspects of their life which contribute to good mental health. For example, play enables children to make and maintain friendships and shows them the importance of adhering to social norms and boundaries.
Play also gives children the opportunity to express themselves and to do something that they find great enjoyment in.
If children are not given the chance to play, many aspects of development may be stifled and they may not become confident enough to gain independence; over reliance on other people can impact their confidence and self-esteem and they may find that some of these issues that develop in childhood are hard to overcome as they get older.
Setting appropriate boundaries and sticking to them
Boundaries that are set by parents and other significant adults enable children to know what is appropriate and what is not appropriate in many different aspects of life, and these boundaries will change as children grow up, reflecting their changing lifestyles and needs.
Children who are still at primary school may need boundaries about what time they go to bed and how much time they are able to spend on computers and other devices. Older children may need boundaries setting about what time they must come home and if they can stay out overnight with friends.
Children who have rules know the importance of adhering to these and will be aware of the consequences as long as the rules about consequences are consistently applied by those who have made the boundaries. Children learn important life skills without which, once again, they may lack confidence and have low self-esteem and may experience difficulties into adulthood.
Although it is important that children are protected from harm, it is also important that they are enabled to gain independence so that they do not grow up being reliant on others. Independence gives children a sense of control over their lives and empowers them to be able to make their own informed decisions and to accomplish their goals.
Furthermore, when children are taught how to be independent, they are better able to understand that they are not being abandoned by their parents when they are doing things for themselves. Independent children tend to be children who are confident and who are not afraid to make mistakes.
Building a sense of belonging
Having a sense of belonging is thought to be a protective factor in preventing both adults and children from developing mental health problems. Humans are social beings and this is evident in how many people belong to a group, such as their family, their friendships, and being a member of a team or a religious or spiritual group. People also belong to charities, political parties, countries and nationalities; a lot of a person’s life is based around the fact that they belong to something.
It is difficult to separate the importance of a sense of belonging to good mental and physical health. Having good links to groups helps people to manage stress levels and helps them to feel safe and comforted, knowing that someone will be there to help them if they need it.
Children can be supported to build a sense of belonging by encouraging them to join in with groups and to make friends; it is important to instil in them that making an effort to belong to groups is crucial to helping them to feel good about themselves. Children who feel accepted in groups are better able to understand the importance of differences between people, which is not only good for their mental well-being but also promotes acceptance and tolerance of others despite many differences between them.
What pupils can expect from their teacher
In schools, teachers have a duty of care towards the children with whom they work. This means that the teacher must never knowingly expose the children to harm and must endeavour to keep them safe at all times.
In respect of mental health, this means that teachers are responsible for acting on any behaviour that a child may experience which may be indicative that they have some form of mental health concern. Teachers are also responsible for making sure that any incidents of discrimination that a child may face because of a mental health problem are quickly and effectively dealt with to prevent them from happening again.
Finally, teachers are also responsible for adhering to any information that is contained within a care plan that a child may have, which outlines how they are being supported to manage their mental health problem. This may contain information relating to the taking of medication or it may relate to more practical issues such as giving children extra time to complete tasks so that they do not become anxious or seating children in specific places within the classroom. It is also necessary for teachers to engage with and liaise with other professionals to ensure that any child with a mental health problem is having their needs met in a consistent and holistic manner.
Top tips for promoting positive mental health
There is a clearly established link between mental health and well-being, which reflects that when someone has a positive and confident sense of well-being that their risk of developing a mental health condition is significantly reduced. On the other hand, someone whose well-being is poor is more likely to become mentally unwell, although, of course, this is never inevitable.
There are several key priorities that are thought to be linked to good well-being for children, which are:
- Having the conditions to learn and develop: This priority ensures that children have met milestones in terms of cognitive and emotional development through access to play in early years and physical development through adequate nutrition and exercise.
- Having enough of what matters: It is thought that children do not need to live in affluent environments in order to have good well-being. They will thrive if they are able to ‘have enough’ and are able to fit in with others. Key elements of this are family circumstances, household income and parental employment, all of which determine if children have access to what they need and whether or not they will be able to fit in.
- Having positive relationships with family and friends: Children need to feel loved and supported and they need positive relationships with those who are closest to them. The actual structure of a child’s home life seems not to matter as much as being cared for properly and feeling safe and secure. Relationships with friends are thought to be most positive when they are stable and where there is little chance of social isolation.
- Having opportunities to take part in positive activities: In order for children to meet their potential, it is important that they have access to an outdoor space where they can play. Additionally, children who have the highest levels of well-being are thought to be those who are actively involved in decisions about how they spend their time. However, it is equally important that children have choices about the activities they choose – children who are deprived of outside spaces, for example, experience lower levels of choice, which may then lead to lower levels of well-being.
- Having a safe and suitable home environment and local area: Children who live in areas where they feel safe and where they feel valued and respected are significantly more likely to report higher levels of well-being. Children are known to need privacy and adequate facilities as the foundation of making choices, and there is also suggestion that children who face great relationship upheavals such as divorce, still fare well as long as the quality of the relationship with each parent remains high.
- Having a positive view of self and an identity that is respected: It is really important for children that they are able to see themselves in a positive light and feel respected by adults and by their peers. Children who have difficulties with bullying and those who are unhappy about their appearance have lower levels of well-being than those children who are happy with who they are and how they are treated by others.