New survey shows that mental health is a ‘nonversation’ for parents

Over half (55%) of parents in England have never spoken to their children about the topic of mental health (including wellbeing, stress, anxiety and depression). The poll of parents across England is being released today by Time to Change, the mental health anti-stigma programme run by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, as they launch a major campaign to reduce mental health stigma among teens and parents. The campaign, which is funded by the Department of Health, includes advertising to reach 14-18 year olds and their parents as well as work in schools with the charity YoungMinds.

One in ten young people will experience a mental health problem – that’s three in every classroom. However, in this latest survey parents said the main reason they hadn’t had a conversation was because it’s not something that they feel they need to discuss (45%).

The survey, conducted by Opinion Matters on behalf of Time to Change, aimed to uncover whether parents are talking to their children about mental health and if not, why not. Of the 55% of parents who hadn’t ever raised the topic of mental health with their child 20% said they chose not to because they wouldn’t know what to say.  

Building on existing work with this audience over the last four years, Time to Change has produced two new adverts to reach young people aged 14-18 and their parents. The first film is aimed at young people and stars spoken word artist Suli Breaks who performs a short spoken word piece about teenagers who had mental health problems when they were younger and faced stigma as a result. The film calls on young people to think twice about judging a friend or classmate who has a mental health problem. The second film encourages parents to be ready to have a conversation about mental health with their child and to weave it into everyday conversations, just as they would with friendship issues, relationships, body image and exam stress. This comes after insights showed that a ‘nonversation’ was happening between parents and their children. This is where both groups would wait for each other to start the conversation and when no-one did, it became awkward and the conversation would be quickly shut down.

The campaign will include online advertising targeting sites that will reach young people and parents, radio adverts played nationwide aimed at reaching parents on the school run and bus adverts to reach young people on their way to and from school. Work in 60 schools across six areas in England will also be rolled out with YoungMinds. As part of this, staff will receive training and free resources to deliver sessions in secondary schools. It will involve young people who have had mental health problems delivering education sessions in schools to share their experience of living with a mental illness and the impact that stigma and discrimination has had on their lives.

This latest campaign comes after a £660,000 investment from the Department of Health, following a proposal laid out in the Future in mind report calling for a national conversation about mental health, specifically aimed at young people and their parents. The report also established a clear and powerful consensus about the need for change to improve children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Nadine Peacock’s 19-year-old daughter Emma experienced mental health problems in her early teens. She said:

“Parents at the school were initially understanding and supportive about Emma’s issues, but as time went on many of them started to avoid me. I felt quite let down by people, who were quick to judge without asking me about what was really going on. As a family, we all felt stigmatised.

“Being a parent isn’t easy and it’s sometimes difficult to gauge if your child is experiencing a mental illness or being a typical teenager. My biggest piece of advice – make mental health part of everyday conversation with your child. Even if your child isn’t experiencing any issues, if something does crop up further down the line at least then they feel like they can have an open conversation with you about it. There also needs to be more education around the topic at school; the more openly this is discussed in the classroom, the less of a taboo mental health will be.”

Daniela Beck (19) started to experience mental health problems when she was just 12 years old. She said:

“Some of my friends thought that I was attention seeking. They would say things like, ‘why are you crying? Nothing is wrong with you. You’re such a drama queen.’ Comments like this made me feel even more isolated. I felt so different from everybody else, and comments like this just made me feel worse. I was already so confused by how I felt, but people’s reactions made it seem like my feelings weren’t valid and something I should feel guilty for.

“When it comes to being there for someone with a mental health problem, just simply listening and not judging is key. There isn’t any expectation of you to solve or change anything, but giving your friend space to talk, without a fear of being judged, can make a massive impact.”

Sue Baker, Director of Time to Change, said:

“This has to be the generation for change.  Mental health problems are a common experience for three children in every classroom. Recent research has also shown that more than two-thirds of headteachers were worried about their pupils’ mental health.  Sadly, the stigma experienced as a result stops young people from doing everyday things such as going out with friends, attending school and having relationships. A quarter have also told us that stigma has made them want to give up on life.

“It’s important to recognise that all young people have mental health and wellbeing, just like they have physical health. Our research has shown that talking about mental health is still seen as too awkward for many parents and young people and we need to change that in the home, at school, on social media and in wider social circles. They feel that mental health is not relevant to their lives so don’t see the value in talking about it. This campaign has to challenge that perception and help parents to be “conversation ready”, as well as encourage young people to avoid being judgemental of their peers.”

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