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Approaching young people about mental health

Now that schools are back in session, so too are feelings of anxiety and depression for some. Headspace's head of direct clinical services, Vikki Ryall has some tips for parents on what to look out for

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02 February 2017

As young people prepare to return to school on Monday after a long break away from the pressures that often come with grades and classmates, it's fair to say not all students will be champing at the bit to get back.

For some, school means returning to the difficulties of last year, while for others it is the apprehension of whether they will be in the same class as their friends or their bullies, which, if left unaddressed, could develop into unhealthy coping mechanisms.

To avoid this, head of clinical services at the National Youth Mental Health Foundation Headspace, Vikki Ryall, says parents should look out for tell-tale signs.

"They're actually simple things, but if there are changes with things like sleep, concentration, weight – if their appetite's gone really up or down − and if the young person is not wanting to do things that they used to really love, or not wanting to see as many people," Ms Ryall tells Neos Kosmos.

While these things fluctuate for all of us, if there is a significant difference, she says parents should ensure that they are checking in with their child to see how they are feeling.

"What we encourage parents to do is basically have a conversation and continue to have those conversations."

While it may seem like obvious advice, life does get busy and sometimes parents forget to engage with their children in a meaningful way.

Ms Ryall suggests asking whether they have any worries about the coming school year, but to not entirely emphasise the negatives, also making sure to ask what it is they're excited about and what they hope to achieve; "essentially whatever is needed to initiate the conversation," Ms Ryall urges.

Meanwhile, evidence suggests that children transitioning from one school to another, or those entering high school for the first time, can be at greater risk of experiencing anxiety.

"Sometimes the jump for the work required for some years is bigger, and if you're talking about 12-year-olds, the jump between primary school and high school can be a very difficult time," she explains.

Ms Ryall also says it's important for parents to keep in mind that their young people may not necessarily feel comfortable speaking with them directly which can be confronting, but is "perfectly reasonable".

"Sometimes parents think that they know what's going on, but they actually don't. Not because they don't care, but because once young people become teenagers, parents are not necessarily the first point of call."

In that case, she encourages parents to ask their children if there is anyone else they would prefer to speak with or if they want to access Headspace.

With a network of 95 centres across Australia catering to young people aged 12-25, services can either be accessed in person or via their national telephone service e-headspace.

While some may have concerns at the thought of their child speaking to someone outside the family, Ms Ryall assures that while it is a confidential service, Headspace centres are both culturally sensitive and family inclusive, which she says works best in the child making progress.

"It's okay for parents to say, 'I would prefer you talk to me', but I guess I would say to the parents that if that's not happening, then it is really important to try and find another way, because the problem with just having that approach means that young people are managing things on their own," she says. It's all about getting help as early as possible, no matter how small the issue may seem.

"There are key things that are often the triggers for people's first mental health difficulty because of how they are managed. We really try to encourage young people to come and talk if they're just not managing stress very well, anything like that is okay to come and talk to someone about and get some help."

To access help at Headspace you can visit one of their centres across Australia, or via eheadspace.org.au where you can receive online and telephone support between 9.00 am-1.00 am (AEDT), seven days a week. There are also general mental health and wellbeing resources available on their website at headspace.org.au

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