Mindfulness: How can it help with mental health difficulties?

It is Mental Health awareness week this week and the theme for this year is Mindfulness.

Earlier this year, Special Needs Jungle ran a post in conjunction with the first Children's Mental Health Awareness Week, by The Place2Be. The post was about the awful state of mental health services for our young people and many people commented with details on their own horrific experiences.

The Government has promised to invest an additional £1.25 billion in children's mental health (CAMHS) services and now they have got back in, we will hope they keep their word. But until this kicks in, young people are still suffering with the same hit and miss service currently available. So how can we help our young people right now?

This is where Mindfulness might be able to help.

What is Mindfulness?

"Mindfulness" originates from an ancient Buddhist practice about paying to attention to the here and now. The aim is to concentrate on what is going on exactly now and; to allow yourself to see and to feel what is happening to your body completely non-judgementally. So, your breathing, what you see, what you taste, how you are feeling emotionally. It allows you to observe your mind when it wanders and to just notice, not act or do anything, just notice. It is permission to be self absorbed , even if you can only manage five minutes at a time.

We all have busy lives, particularly if you have a child with a disability. We rush about every day with our ‘to do’ list in one hand, mobile phone in the other (at least I do, and I’m sure many of us are similar). We can gather pace at momentous speed until ‘bang’ we crash emotionally, too exhausted to do anything. We end up snappy and irritable with those we love, anxious about the future, depressed about the past. Continuing at a fast, unsustainable pace can set us up for a crash, leading to anxiety disorders, depression, OCD and some physical conditions. Something has to give!

What is happening to our young people today?

We know that mental health difficulties are increasing at an incredible rate. The access criteria and thresholds to CAMHS meanwhile, are also increasing with only tier three and four cases being accepted for a referral in many areas.

The last actual review of mental health in young people was carried out in 2004, over a decade ago, so it is no wonder that there is little out there by way of services to support our young people.

Mental Health Statistics

Here are some of the statistics from that review which I have taken from the young minds website www.youngminds.org.uk

  • 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 - 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder - that is around three children in every class (1).
  • Between 1 in every 12 and 1 in 15 children and young people deliberately self-harm (2).
  • There has been a big increase in the number of young people being admitted to hospital because of self harm. Over the last ten years this figure has increased by 68% (3).
  • More than half of all adults with mental health problems were diagnosed in childhood. Less than half were treated appropriately at the time (4).
  • Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression (5).
  • Over 8,000 children aged under 10 years old suffer from severe depression (6).
  • 72% of children in care have behavioural or emotional problems - these are some of the most vulnerable people in our society (7).
  • 95% of imprisoned young offenders have a mental health disorder. Many of them are struggling with more than one disorder (8).
  • The number of young people aged 15-16 with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s (9).
  • The proportion of young people aged 15-16 with a conduct disorder more than doubled between 1974 and 1999 (10)

Perhaps significantly, during the previous 11 years the internet has exploded with the introduction of a plethora of social media and gaming websites, with many parents being left behind, not knowing how to police their child’s use of the internet. It can put children under extraordinary amounts of peer pressure and potentially cyberbullying, even in their own bedrooms. On top of this is the relentless pursuit of educational targets that translates to continual testing - pressure, pressure, pressure!

It's quite a different experience of childhood to the one we had!

There are a lot of unknowns out there - and unknowns create stress!

Young people in western societies today are under extraordinary amounts of stress because of the way the technological, globalised world has developed. More and more, their brains can be overloaded with information and demands. So it is no wonder that referral to CAMHS and counselling services have increased.

How could mindfulness help?

Mindfulness has been described by many people as either being mind-full – i.e, no space for anything more in our minds, or mindful – i.e, thinking about what we feel and how we respond to others and ourselves.

Children who have additional difficulties – dyslexia, dyspraxia, Attention Deficit, Asperger's etc, may find Mindfulness can give them the break they need from coping with the demands of every day. It can help with resilience and self confidence too, therefore reducing their vulnerability to bullying.

I find practicing mindfulness of great benefit to myself and while I still have the occasional temper tantrum (just ask my boys!) they are far less frequent.

One way of describing mindfulness would be to turn off our auto-pilot.

We - and our children - often go about our days finely-tuned to what we need to do, where we need to be, who we need to see or speak to. This is often carried out at high speed while answering texts, emails, Snapchat, the list is endless.

Then there are all the normal worries teenagers have about what other people think of them, what they think of themselves, what they look like, life becomes cluttered with everything we feel we have to do.

But do we really have to? Is being the funniest, the cleverest, the wittiest, the fastest really essential to who we are? Or have we just got lost along the way?

As you know, both of my children have additional difficulties and weren’t raised in a competitive household at all, so I know that much of it comes from outside influences including the media.


Five Minute Mindfulness

Free time is scarce for all of us, I thought I would compress some of the main elements of mindfulness into five minute blocks, to make it easier for you to give it a go or to teach it to your kids if that is suitable.

Breathing: The natural way to breathe is in through the nose and out through the mouth. Have you ever watched a young baby breathe? Even with a blocked sinus, they still breathe through their noses, with their tummy raising in response to the air being breathed in.

*Exercise 1*

Put a hand on your tummy and feel how your abdomen rises and falls as you slowly breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Do this in groups of 20 breaths.  For children who feel stressed at school it is something that could be done privately in a toilet cubicle if needed.

Hunger: How do you eat your food? Do you eat because you are physically hungry or emotionally hungry? Try to interpret what emotion (sadness, anger, anxiety, boredom) is automatically making you head for the snack cupboard.

*Exercise 2*

Next time hunger tickles, stop before you head to the kitchen and ask yourself: Am I really hungry or is some other emotion tugging at me?  

Eating: When you do eat, how do you do it? Is it grabbing a snack on the go, is it hiding from others in the lunch hall because of shame or embarrassment? Is it something that happens without thinking? Shovelling something in last thing in the evening?

*Exercise 3*

Next time you eat a meal, think about what you are eating and savour what you put into your mouth. Look at it, smell it, feel it on your tongue, maybe even listen to it (if possible) by putting it to your ear and giving it a squeeze, what does it sound like? Finally put it in your mouth and chew very, very slowly. What does it feel like in your mouth? The texture or consistency? What is the actual taste?

I have known people who have done this never eat that particular food again as it occurred to them it really wasn’t as nice as they thought it was.

Noticing: Have you ever stopped and looked at your surroundings, I mean really looked? Spending five minutes just focusing on where you are and what you are doing can be quite incredible. Not only can it give you a different perspective and allow you to slow down, it can change how we react, so that we can respond in a way that is much more timely for our own needs.

*Exercise 4*

When feeling stressed, take five minutes to stop and focus on where you are and what you are doing. Your mind will undoubtedly wander while you do this, but don’t do anything other than notice where your mind has wandered to and gently bring it back to noticing where you are.

I love doing this and have found it very relaxing.

Meditation:  On the internet there are many mediation clips to listen to. Find one that you like (Try YouTube or Deezer or Spotify or you can download free or inexpensive apps on your phone or tablet) and then just sit and ground yourself. Perhaps use headphones. This can take from as little as five minutes to as long as 40 minutes should you have that amount of time.

*Exercise 5*

Focus on your body and starting at your feet, stop and focus on each and every part of your body – Take note of how it feels: is it hot or cold, stiff, relaxed, tingly or still – flex and relax each part that you can and cover your whole body, each part individually. This can really aid sleep if done at night when settling down.

Of course if you want to go for a whole mindfulness programme then I am sure you will reap many benefits. There are lots to choose from but audible have a good selection.

Good mental health shouldn’t be the exception to the rule, especially for our young people so self help is even more important at the moment.

Angela Kelly
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