Mental health issues for children and teenagers are a growing national problem – with one expert team responding to the challenge of helping youngsters struggling to cope.
A recent study of headteachers by the Association of School and College Leaders found 55 per cent reporting a large rise in pupils with anxiety and stress, with 40 per cent highlighting a rise in online bullying and 79 per cent seeing an increase in students with suicidal thoughts or taking part in self-harm.
The YoungMinds charity states that more than 8,000 children aged under 10 across the country suffer from severe depression.
YoungMinds also highlights the importance of mental health conditions being treated properly in childhood.
It states that more than 50 per cent of all adults with mental health problems were diagnosed in childhood – but less than half were given the right treatment at the time.
One organisation well aware of the vital importance of helping youngsters with such problems is Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the Becton Centre in Beighton.
It helps children as young as five with serious and complex mental health conditions such as autism, eating disorders, psychosis and obsessive compulsive disorder.
The Becton centre is split into four lodges:
n Amber, which is for children aged between five and 11 with serious and complex mental health problems
n Emerald, which is for children between 11 and 14 with emotional and behavioural difficulties
n Ruby, which is for children between eight and 18 with learning disabilities and severe and complex mental health and behaviour problems
n Sapphire, which is for children aged between 14 and 18 with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
The site also includes a school for young people staying in the facilities.
Occupational therapist Steph Wallace, who works in the Sapphire Lodge, said the average length of stay for children is between six and nine months.
She said while she was unsure if demand for services is increasing in South Yorkshire, it is ‘definitely not reducing’, with all of the lodges typically full.
Steph works with teenagers and said her work varies from encouraging youngsters to view themselves in a more positive light to practical advice around basic life skills such as going shopping and changing a lightbulb.
She said it can be a difficult journey for both children and their parents as it is first recognised there is a diagnosable problem and then working on how it can be treated.
Steph said: “Sometimes they have a formal diagnosis – an eating disorder or anxiety, depression, psychosis or might be on the autistic spectrum. It could be they have a lot of those difficulties and we don’t know what those are yet. We provide diagnosis and sometimes young people have lots of difficulties around coping at home.
“They often need to come in to us for a period of assessment. A young person would normally be going to school or college.
“We would look and see how their conditions or difficulties are stopping them going back to these things.
“Things like anger management – it might be they can’t go on a bus to go to school or go into a classroom, they find it really difficult.
“A young child might be labelled as badly behaved. But actually what is happening is it is too noisy for them to be in class.
“Realising there is a problem mean you can change the label from ‘naughty’.”
Steph said one of the challenges for occupational therapists is convincing children they deserve help. She said: “A lot of our work is around self-esteem.
“A lot of young people don’t think they are worth helping and don’t think they are worthy of change.
“It is easier to be kinder to someone else before you are kind to yourself. Young people like positive messages and I do a lot of work around positive messages and how to accept a compliment.
“Just a simple way of saying ‘thank you’ rather than brushing it off. It is about learning to be kind to ourselves.”
She said she can ask children to think of things they are grateful for each day or even things that have not gone as badly as they feared they might.
Steph said that in her 15 years in the job, there has been a gradual shift in the type of pressures facing children and teenagers.
“Social media has played a part in that. I have run a self-esteem group over the 15 years I’ve worked here.
“When they first started I would get a lot of glossy magazines and ask the group how viewing the images affected them.
“But groups now don’t read magazines.
“All that stuff will be online and via social media.”
She said each decision on when a child is ready to return home has to be taken on an individual basis, taking into account a range of factors.
Steph said: “Parents ask us all the time – ‘How long is it going to be?’ We just don’t know how long that piece of string will be.
“Sometimes we can’t change some of the difficulties they come in with or the circumstances but they go out knowing they are stronger and braver.
“It is such an inspiration to me.
“Because they are younger there is much more opportunity and hope for them.”
Steph said it can be very rewarding to help children overcome their problems and learn to cope with different conditions.
“It is just out of this world, it is really humbling.
“Occasionally I get an email from someone in their 20s who I have worked with saying what we told them about all makes sense now.
“It is the young people who are doing it.”
* Tomorrow: Inside Sheffield Children’s Hospital’s unique workshop