All it took was a couple of close friends to confide in Ben about their own mental health issues.
At the time the 12-year-old was fighting his own personal battles, yet on hearing his friends’ plights the schoolboy took the decision to prioritise their welfare over his.
‘When I was struggling with my mental health, I was initially very secretive about it’, remembers Ben, now 18. ‘I didn’t completely understand what I was feeling and didn’t want to ask for help.
‘I had close friends who were battling with their mental health and although in some cases I related to what they were saying, I always felt that their problems were more important than mine so was reluctant to speak out.’
Deeming their issues to be ‘more important’ than his own, for the next two years the boy buried his problems and put all his energy into being there for his friends.
However, this shift in focus caused Ben’s own mental health to deteriorate and have a detrimental effect on his physical health and affected his education. ‘For a period I wasn’t even able to get up and go to school and wouldn’t leave my bed all day,’ he admits.
While attitudes surrounding mental health may have changed over the years, there’s one piece of advice that has remained vital: talk to someone.
But with figures last summer revealing that one in five youngsters said they didn’t know how to help a friend who is struggling with their mental health, being that person someone turns to in times of crisis can carry its own issues – especially if you’re also dealing with mental health problems.
‘Studies have shown that young people, particularly in adolescence, are more likely to confide in their friends than their parents,’ explains Dr Michele McDowell, an independent educational and child psychologist.
‘They often perceive their parents as not being able to understand their issues and worry about how they may be judged if they tell all. In contrast, their peers are viewed as having the same experiences, interests and attitudes and therefore being able to understand them more.
‘However, although there are noted benefits to peer support, it is essential that they have empathy, emotional competence, a positive attitude and an awareness of the support they themselves can seek if and when needed.’
That’s why YoungMinds, the UK’s leading charity fighting for children and teens mental health, is launching a crucial campaign this week in a bid not just to support those who are asking for help, but the youngsters who are supporting those struggling.
Called Not All On You, the initiative centres around eight short 30 second animations from the charity’s Young Activists talking about their own personal experiences.
One of the soundbites reveals: ‘When you’re supporting others and start to feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to reach out for help. You might make your problems invisible to someone because you don’t want to make things worse for them. It’s okay to speak up. It’s important your feelings are heard too, so you don’t go without support.’
Another comments: ‘I’ve developed a lot of compassion for my friends because of my own mental health issues. It’s a big thing I value about who I am, but you also have to be kind to yourself. I often spread too thin and try to do too much. It can get me wrapped up in knots.
Explaining the thinking behind the project, Tom Madders, Director of Campaigns at YoungMinds, says: ‘Over the last few years there have been lots of great initiatives urging people to open up and talk to someone about their mental health.
‘They send a really important message, and one that sadly still needs to be said. But they leave a big gap. Throughout the pandemic young people we’ve spoken to have not only struggled with their own mental health, but have also been worried about their friends and family’s mental health.
‘We wanted to create something that helped people respond to someone who has reached out to them, without feeling under pressure to do everything.
‘We also wanted to ensure that their voices are heard and that the campaign feels relevant, authentic and responsive to what they need. So from the very start, we have been working with our Activists to develop this campaign.’
Ben is one of the Young Activists involved in the project.
‘For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to help and look after people when they were feeling down,’ he explains.
‘Throughout my teenage years, I encountered quite a few people who were struggling with their mental health and often felt like it was my responsibility to help them get better.
‘I think it was because having seen how low things could get, I didn’t want anyone else to have to feel the same and my desire to help others definitely increased. Additionally, once I had become more open about my struggles people definitely came to me for support more.
‘Knowing someone has experience of a topic like mental health makes it easier to open up to them as they feel they are likely to relate – but I know first-hand that this itself can bring pressure, especially when you are struggling with your mental health.
‘The issue is not everything has a solution and when this was the case after I began to take their issues on, I felt like I was letting them down by not solving things for them.
‘This was something that I found very frustrating. I hated not knowing what to say to people. I almost felt that I had failed them.’
Ben adds that when he was able to give good advice it was associated with feelings of achievement and pride. ‘However when I felt that I had not made the difference that I had wanted to, it had a negative impact on my own mental health,’ he admits.
‘I wanted to help people to feel okay and when I couldn’t do that I felt that I wasn’t good enough. This then meant that I was getting down and taking other peoples’ problems on.’
As the toll of supporting friends rather than himself took hold, and saw the youngster spending days in bed, Ben’s family decided to make an appointment with his GP.
‘Being someone who was always very active and energetic, to see me not able to get out of bed and wanting to sleep all day was a clear sign that something was not right,’ he recalls. ‘Although, it didn’t really cross their minds that it could be a result of poor mental health.
‘Thankfully my GP referred me to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) for help.
‘Being told there could be an explanation for the way I was feeling and that I was going to have access to support was a big relief and gave me some clarity in a difficult time.’
Ben now realises the importance of prioritising his own mental health so that it can enable him to support others.
‘Looking after your own mental health allows you to have a clearer mind which means should someone around you need support, you can process their problems without it becoming overwhelming.’
20-year-old Jessa is another YoungMinds activist who worked on the Not All On You campaign. She first got involved with the charity when she was 16 after experiencing her own struggles with mental health three years earlier.
‘I didn’t really want to speak to anyone because I thought it was embarrassing to admit that I had something wrong with me and felt that my parents wouldn’t understand because they had much harsher upbringings than what I’ve experienced,’ Jessa recalls.
‘To be honest, when I was finally assigned to counselling I did everything to get out of there as quickly as possible and then bottled everything up for years.’
Looking back, Jessa explains that it took time for her to begin to understand her mental health more and ask for support when she needs it.
‘It’s only been in more recent years that I’ve started being more in tune with my mental state and what’s been going on,’ she says.
‘I really struggled when leaving school after sixth form because all my friends had gone off to uni and I felt left behind, as well as having past traumas constantly popping up again, so I wanted to speak to a counsellor to help me get through it.
‘It can be really difficult saying no to helping others
‘I also restarted therapy online once the pandemic hit which has been great in providing a bit of stability and pattern in these uncertain times, and I think it’s finally bringing me to a place where I feel ready to face the issues that I’ve not really been willing to face on my own.’
When she first heard about the campaign, Jessa says was keen to be part of it as she wished something similar had been around when she was struggling.
‘I want to do what I can so that people can stand a better chance of getting the help they deserve, as well as knowing steps to take care of our wellbeing, which I’m definitely still learning for myself,’ she says.
‘It’s so important because it’s really easy to have things piling on until it seems like too much is happening, and at this point it’s hard to know how to establish boundaries to allow time for taking care of ourselves,’ she adds. ‘But I now know that in doing this we can feel much more ready to take care of others again.
‘Self-care also doesn’t have to be a really time consuming ordeal, giving myself five minutes here and there to just take a step back, breathe and put things into perspective usually calms me down a bit, helping me to be more productive and mindful with what I have going on.
‘It can be really difficult saying no to helping others, so when I might not be able to give them all the attention they deserve, I try to at least do something small as I’ve found that even little acts of kindness and compassion can make a huge difference.
Jessa says that she’s also discovered that when supporting people, she normally finds it easiest to just listen.
‘I’m not always the best with words or knowing what to do in the moment,’ she explains. ‘But I have found that by visiting someone, bringing them food or presents they might like, and trying to hear and understand how I can support them in this instance, instead of applying a one-size-fits-all approach, is usually helpful.’
A survey carried out by YoungMinds last autumn found that a quarter of young people said they were concerned their own mental health would get worse over the coming months. One of the reasons they cited was because they worried about a friend’s mental health during the pandemic.
Dr McDowell says that there’s no doubt that the Covid-19 crisis and various lockdowns have had an ‘immense’ impact on youth emotional wellbeing.
‘Children and young people’s mental health have been particularly impacted upon by the pandemic,’ she explains. ‘School closures, exam cancellations, no interactions with friends and limited socialising due to lockdown have had an immense impact on their development.
‘Due to their age and stage of emotional development, children and teens have a limited ability to effectively express their feelings and emotions, a skill that is important for supporting their mental health. Lockdown has been associated with anxiety related behaviours such as low mood, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, erratic behaviour and difficulties with social interactions.’
It’s the forced positivity and telling me what I should or shouldn’t be that I find hard to resonate with
Ben echoes this statement, adding that he found lockdown ‘a new and difficult experience’.
He says, ‘For me, my mental health is at its best when I have a good routine and am able to socialise. It has been easy to slip into bad routines throughout the lockdowns, sleeping through the day and not getting as much exercise, and this has made a clear impact.
‘It’s been important to share those feelings with people because we are all in the same boat and need each other’s support to get through these tricky periods.’
However, as Jessa points out, it is worth remembering that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to offering support to someone you care about.
‘Everybody is different, so advice that works or doesn’t work for me definitely isn’t the same for everyone else,’ she explains. ‘Personally, I often find it unhelpful when I feel upset about something and somebody reacts as though my feelings are unjustified. It’s okay for some people to remind their friends of the good things going on but it’s the forced positivity and telling me what I should or shouldn’t be that I find hard to resonate with.
‘Support comes in many different forms and different people find comfort from different things, so at times when it doesn’t feel like I’ve helped as much as I would have liked to, I try to never take it to heart and remind myself that I’ve done the best I can.’
According to Dr McDowell, there’s a real concern that if we don’t do more to support those helping others, the consequences could be dire.
‘Youngsters can be very resilient and supportive to each other; however it is important that their own mental health is monitored,’ she explains. ‘By supporting others’ needs they may be overlooking their own and be over-reliant on themselves to solve problems, making them more susceptible to feeling burnt out and developing mental health concerns. Any lack of support has the potential to have an adverse effect on their own wellbeing.’
Meanwhile, YoungMind’s Tom Madden says, ‘It’s crucial that young people have the tools available to set boundaries for themselves and look after their own mental health while they’re helping others.
‘Being the friend who someone opens up to can feel overwhelming, especially if you’re going through a hard time too, and it can be easy to forget we need to look after ourselves too.’
How to respond when someone opens up to you about their mental health
- Listen carefully when someone reaches out to you. Let them say what they want to before responding, interrupting or assuming. Show you are listening by nodding, or repeating what they say.
- Let them know their feelings are valid – you could say something like ‘it’s okay to feel like that’, or, ‘what you are going through sounds really tough’.
- Reassure them that they’ve done the right thing by speaking about it, and that they are not alone.
- Ask them what they would like from you, and if they would like you to help them find places they can get support, like the GP or helplines.
- Check in with them a day or two later, but respect their boundaries if they say they don’t want to talk about it.
- Look after yourself, by taking time to talk to someone if you need to, or doing some self-care after listening to a difficult conversation. Know that just listening and being there for your friend is amazing, and that you have done what you can. Remember it isn’t all on you. There are other places that can help, like GP, school, helplines and services.
To find out more about Not All On You, visit https://youngminds.org.uk/supporting-friends
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