Column: Take Care of your Mental Health

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submitted by Canada Safety Council

With school back in session, parents and teachers are preparing children to learn but also to stay safe, most commonly from physical injuries and illnesses. However, a safety topic that too often goes overlooked is mental health. Recently, the topic of mental health is being treated more and more in the context of safety – but the subject matter is excluded from safety discussions by caregivers too often, frequently as a result of uncertainty in how to address it or unfamiliarity with mental health.

This makes its place in the discussion that much more crucial – not only does mental illness affect a child’s performance in school, but it can affect them to the point where they put themselves or others in physical danger or inflict harm. It’s an arena in which discussion can benefit both child and caregiver.

As the Canada Safety Council celebrates 100 years in safety, our focus continues to be preventing avoidable injuries and fatalities. In the context of National School Safety Week, October 17–23, it is our responsibility as a society to ensure that everyone – including school-aged children – have access to the mental health resources they may need.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, children that have mental health illnesses often go undiagnosed; as few as one in five children with mental health issues seek medical help. And unfortunately, due to lack of awareness and education, many myths about mental health and its impact on children contribute to misinformation and misunderstanding. Here are a few pervasive myths and the truths behind them:

Myth 1: Mental health illnesses are not real

Mental health is just as real as getting a cold, breaking a leg, or any other short-term or long term illness/injury. Physical illnesses and injuries have varied ranges of severity, duration and frequency. This is the same as mental health illnesses.

Mental health is the state of one’s psychological and emotional wellbeing. Mental health covers an umbrella of illnesses including Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. These illnesses vary in degree of severity, and can all be controlled through medication and/or therapy. However, when these illnesses are not diagnosed or managed through treatment, those that are ill may possibly harm others or themselves.

Myth 2: They will grow out of it

Children will grow out of habits, clothing and “phases”… but mental health stays with a person for the duration of their life. When we use the term “grow out of,” it commonly refers to a growing pain that is meant to be temporary. This is a dangerous term to use regarding mental health because it attempts to negate the fact that mental health illnesses are not valid, preferring instead to treat it as an attention-getting mechanism, perhaps, or a quirk to be disregarded.

According to a study by the Government of Canada, 70 per cent of adults that suffer with a mental health illness showed signs that they were ill as a child or adolescent. A number of long-term illnesses can be treated successfully when treatment is sought out early.

Myth 3: Bad parenting causes mental health illnesses

There is no perfect recipe for parenting, and as a parent you shouldn’t see it as a failure if your child does have a mental health illness. Due to the variety of mental health illnesses, it is easy to miss the signs completely and this certainly is not caused by bad parenting. Parents with children that have a mental illness sometimes feel guilty because they feel responsible for missing the signs, or their child tried to express their pain and the parent minimized the situation. Cases similar to these reinforce the need for additional discussion of mental health issues because they are rooted not in malice but more so in a lack of understanding.

A child’s biochemistry and their environment are often responsible for the development of mental health illnesses. A few factors that can develop a mental health illness include stressful situations and/or exposure to harmful substances during infancy. This can disrupt the brain’s chemistry and some may be more prone to the effects of these factors due to their genetics. If you are concerned that your child may be at risk, there are ways to address concerns before they become more pronounced. Start by seeking out your local mental health association, school counsellor, or doctor for more information.

Myth 4: Seeking treatment makes the child worse

Parents are often hesitant in consulting medical help out of fear that their child will receive unnecessary medication or waste time in therapy. It is important to remember that the combination of treatments a child may receive is specifically tailored to them. No brain chemistry is the same. Children with mental health illnesses may be fine with only receiving therapy, only receiving medication, or a combination of the two.

There are professionals in the field of mental health that are trained to see warning signs and understand the benefits of therapy and prescription. We often put our trust in medical doctors who prescribe medication for physical illnesses – and just as we trust our doctors, we should trust mental health experts.

Mental health isn’t easy and can even be worrisome when it comes to children. It’s essential for parents to start by having an open dialogue with their children, where both parties are able to express how they’re feeling. Starting a healthy conversation with children early on and providing a safe space may help them feel more comfortable to seek help. For guidance on how to start the conversation or engage your child, seek out external resources including your child’s school or doctor.

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