Fighting for children’s mental health

Lockdown and isolation have negatively impacted the mental health of many young people, so how can the working parents who are trying to help them be supported?

Family hands holding red hearth - mental health


It is estimated that one in six children aged five to 16 is likely to have a mental health problem. Recent statistics show that the pandemic has exacerbated the problem as a consequence of lockdowns and isolation.

Many young people have found the last lockdown in January 2021 harder to cope with than previous ones, according to a survey conducted by Young Minds of 2,438 young people aged 13-25. Some of the responses they received from young people show that “they are deeply anxious, have started self-harming again, are having panic attacks, or are losing motivation and hope for the future”. The results also show that 67% of respondents believe that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.

For many struggling with eating disorders (EDs), the uncertainty of the pandemic and isolation have negatively affected their recovery. That was the case for Sarah*, who was diagnosed with anorexia when she was 16. Despite receiving a prompt diagnosis and professional support, the lockdowns have slowed down her recovery because she was able to conceal the extent of her disorder.

“For five or six months she was unable to expose the anorexia to normal life and normal things like going out for coffee, having a piece of cake somewhere or going out for dinner, lunch and socialising with people around food,” says Sarah’s mother, Jo.

Currently, the NHS is experiencing a record number of treatment demands for children with EDs. Whilst demand has increased, more children and young people are being treated than ever before. However, as the NHS struggles to keep up with the  high number of requests, parents have often been left trying to do the best they can to support their children.

“The pandemic had a huge impact, it meant a loss of control for a lot of people. Lots of things were taken away from people which helped them to cope and eating disorders tend to either resurrect or start when people feel that sense of loss of control in their life,” says Deborah Watson, founder of the non-profit organisation Wednesday’s Child.

She explains: “Alongside that, therapy relationships were cancelled or people were perhaps discharged from the service a bit earlier than they might otherwise have been just because the demand was so high. So if they left the service or the inpatient unit too early, that meant a lot of people were left to cope for themselves and that was a real struggle.”

To understand a mental health illness, it takes patience, time and willingness to learn and listen. The battle is often difficult both for those struggling and their family.

Poor mental health could mean not being able to attend school or difficulties socialising, with people affected sometimes needing supervision throughout the day. Doctors’ appointments, counselling sessions or inpatient treatments, as well as educating yourself about the illness can become a full-time job for a parent and their child.

Seeking support for children’s mental health conditions

With limited bed space and a long waiting list for psychiatric support within the NHS, it is organisations like Wednesday’s Children that can make the difference. Besides offering help from therapists and nutritionists, they give parents and carers specific training to understand EDs.

It took Jo a few weeks just to comprehend what the road to recovery would look like and how to support her daughter. “My head felt swamped, but coming to terms with it was really essential for me because I knew I was going to be her main carer and that the main support for anorexia is at home. It’s not like they can take a pill and it’s all going to be okay,” she says.

Watson says: “There’s still quite a stigma attached to eating disorders, although less so now. But I still think that a proportion of people see something like an eating disorder as self-inflicted so rather than being wholly supportive and compassionate you might get the kind of employer or colleague who might say, well, can’t you just tell them to eat?”

Approaching mental health conditions in the same way as any other sicknesses is necessary, and could help more people to open up, especially as it can be challenging to tackle them, she states.

“In a workplace you might find that a person doesn’t feel they can admit what’s going on at home and that’s really tough because if you were dealing with your child’s mental health issue in isolation because either you feel stigmatised, ashamed or embarrassed, then you’re not getting help for yourself,” says Watson.

She adds: “I always say to any parent that the fundamental thing you have to remember is to put your oxygen mask on first, just like they say on an airplane. It’s really important you prioritise your own wellbeing first because you can’t help your child if you don’t help yourself.”

Guilt is a common feeling amongst parents with children battling mental health illnesses. It can lead them to believe that they have failed as a parent, which can in turn lead to a deterioration in their own health.

“So many adults are caught up in worrying that they have to do the right thing for their child so before long they’re the ones who start to feel depressed, anxious and exhausted,” says Watson.

This can have a wider impact on their lives.

“It’s quite common to see relationships break down, perhaps a marriage breakdown, because parents disagree about how best to help that child or the child has to go into a hospital that is nowhere near their own home. So there’s a lot of travelling and there are financial issues involved. So the impact on a family is incredible,” says Watson.

For all of these reasons, parents need to receive the right support both at work and outside.

How can employers help working parents?

At times, dealing with a child’s illness means parents putting their job to the side to take care of their child’s mental health, but in cases when they decide to stay at work, they need to be equipped to do so and have adequate support.

Jo considers herself lucky as she was able to work from home. Her husband wasn’t able to do that. But, even in that scenario, she says: “It’s been really tough because you’ve got obligations to the business, and to the customers that we work for, and I found it really tough mentally to give the attention it needs.”

“But I have the mindset that my daughter’s health is the most important thing and sometimes when you’re spinning plates all the time, some of the plates have to drop and that’s just life. The most important thing is that she gets the support that she needs,” she says.

However, because of the stigma around mental health conditions parents can feel ashamed to share what is happening at home in case people think they have failed as a parent. This can be particularly difficult for working parents who do not really know how to communicate with their employers the reasons why they might need more flexibility in their schedule or their need to take time off.

It is never too late for employers to educate themselves about mental health, and asking experts for help in the field could make the task easier.

Wednesday’s Child offers online resources that people can download from the website, whether it is for someone recovering, a parent or an employer. “I would encourage anybody that runs a business to get in touch with an organisation like ours to do some training or have a talk by somebody about mental health,” says Watson.

However, not all employers are willing to confront mental health issues or struggle to recognise the wide way in which they present.

“I’ve had a boss of 500 staff say to me ‘we haven’t got a problem with eating disorders in here’ and I said, well, for a start, that’s highly unlikely because amongst 500 staff, you probably have some. You wouldn’t necessarily know it because lots of people just think you’ve got to be really emaciated to have an eating disorder,” recalls Watson.

Then, she adds: “But, even if you don’t have a member of staff who has got a disorder there’s a high probability that you’ve got somebody who’s a parent of someone who is battling with an eating disorder and that mental anguish is horrendous for the parent.”

Watson adds that, running a session once a year is only a first step. Being understanding and taking a proactive approach to mental health illnesses could help many employees open up, not only regarding their own struggles but those of their family, which ultimately could give them more peace of mind and help them feel more included.

Jo says: “You’d have to understand what they were going through to be able to support them correctly, but there needs to be a lot more knowledge out there so that people can ensure staff’s wellbeing because there are moments when you just feel absolutely terrible with it all.”

Taking care of a child is a demanding task and having to deal with any type of illness can be extremely exhausting. Managing a job simultaneously can be very challenging, and having someone to talk to and not fearing being judged when they need to ask for time off to take care of their child, would not only eliminate much of the stress but would also allow them to focus more on their job and supporting their family.

“I don’t think anyone can comprehend the difficulty of this illness within a family until you’ve actually experienced it. Sometimes you’re exhausted by it, it’s draining, it’s very upsetting, at times very distressing when people are at their lowest,” says Jo.

One of the most important actions to take is to listen and make reasonable adjustments for the individual and potentially offer them counselling sessions so that they can take care of themselves too.

“My daughter has been seen every single week, sometimes twice a week, for a year, and in a working week that can wipe out many hours of time,” says Jo, adding: “I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do if I haven’t been able to have the opportunity to work from home and have flexible hours. I find myself doing work when my daughter has gone to bed at 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock at night, and I catch up early in the morning when she’s still asleep. I just do what I can when I can to keep on top of things.”

Knowing that they are not fighting this battle alone and are supported and understood could make a big difference for anyone struggling and their family.

*Sarah is not her real name.

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