World Mental Health Day 2022: A global priority

Established in 1992, we celebrate World Mental Health Day to raise awareness about mental health, reduce stigma and social discrimination, and make well-being for all a global priority. The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day on Monday, October 10th, 2022 is “Make mental health & well-being for all a global priority.”

A mental health crisis amongst children and teens

After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, our collective mental health has taken a dive, and children and adolescents have been the hardest hit. People who go on to develop mental health problems usually exhibit symptoms by age 14, and today up to 20% of teens are reporting serious suicidal thoughts. It’s time to focus on prevention and early intervention by providing adults and parents with the resources they require to live healthy lives and raise happy, resilient children.

To prevent mental health problems in adolescence and later in adulthood, we have to understand children, foster positive environments for kids in schools, create support systems for parents, and find ways to make mental health care affordable and accessible for parents and their children.

Children’s mental health depends on adult mental health

Addressing the youth mental health crisis begins with us. As adults (parents or not), we’re responsible for nurturing future generations. We need to learn how to better relate to children, support them, mentor them, and make sure their physical, emotional, and developmental needs are met.

However our own mental health issues – as well as modern day stresses and distractions – can interfere with our ability to meet the needs of children.

Our mental health is forged in infancy and childhood

The first two years of life are widely thought to be the most influential in a child’s development. Our brains are “blooming” during this time, and we develop patterns that can end up affecting us for a lifetime. Mothers with insecure attachment styles (anxious, avoidant, or disorganized) tend to pass these patterns on to their children before they’re even a year old. This is because the mother’s own mental health issues prevent her from consistently responding to her infant’s needs.

However a 2014 study found that when mothers with insecure attachment styles began healing their trauma before the birth of their child, their infants went on to develop secure attachment styles. 

This goes to show that when adults heal themselves, it can break cycles of maladaptive behaviors and trauma passed down from generation to generation.

As parents, we tend to model our behavior based on what we know; the examples that were set for us in childhood. If our parents were harsh or absent, we’re liable to repeat similar patterns unless we understand and change our own behaviors and attune to children and their needs.
Children diagnosed with behavioral disorders typically have a history of trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs can include stressful experiences ranging from emotional abuse and neglect to homelessness, living with a depressed parent, divorce, or bullying. These children and teens may be frequently punished when they need more supportive relationships in their lives with both adults and peers.

How to prevent mental health problems

As a therapist, one way you can help prevent mental health problems in children is by working with adults to resolve their own issues and traumas.

Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) is a good choice for adults with a history of ACEs who struggle with shame and self-criticism – indicators of insecure attachment, which is all too often passed down to children. CFT blends aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with Buddhist thought, developmental psychology, and neuroscience.

Mindfulness is a wonderful tool for overcoming trauma and improving our mental health. It increases our awareness of our body, emotions, and thoughts, while reducing stress. Mindfulness techniques can be taught to both adults and kids (including through VR), and used in schools.

As a parent, teacher, or mental health professional you could also help to pioneer the movement for trauma-informed schools in your community.

Natural Learning Relationships (NLR) is a framework for understanding, raising, and working with kids that can easily be taught to parents, therapists, and teachers in schools. And NLR isn’t just about meeting the needs of kids, either. In his book Optimal Parenting, Ba Luvmour writes that “By meeting the conditions for optimal well-being in the child, the parent heals their own childhood wounds.”

This World Mental Health Day is a time to raise awareness about the mental health of children, teens, and parents, and to have discussions about how to improve youth mental health. It’s also a time to make plans to reduce stigma around mental health: what can be done in your community? Is there anything you can do?

For example, could you offer to be a mentor, or create a new program in schools? Could you bring more child development theory into your practice or classroom? Your imagination is the limit. Remember, “It takes a village to raise a child.”