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Back to school preparations usually involve a last-minute dash for uniform, pencil cases and shoes. Rarely though is considerable thought given to proactively helping children get mentally prepared for the year ahead.

The latest figures show that mental health problems in young people are on the rise.

The most recent survey was carried out by NHS Digital in 2017 and outlines trends in child mental health. The survey found that 1 in 8 (12.8%) children and young people aged 5 – 19 have at least one mental health disorder (emotional, behavioural, hyperactive or other); an increase from the last survey carried out in 2004.

The researchers found that this change was driven mainly by an increase in emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. The 2017 survey found that around 1 in 12 (8.1%) young people aged 5 -19 reported suffering from an emotional disorder.1

Another large-scale study entitled The Millennium Cohort Study has followed the lives of over 19,500 people born in the UK at the turn of the new century. The most recent survey or ‘sweep’ took place when cohort members were 14 and found that almost one in four (24%) girls and one in ten (9%) boys reported experiencing high levels of depressive symptoms. In this study, a link was also identified between social media use and depressive symptoms, and this was found to be stronger for girls compared with boys. There are many factors likely to be contributing to growing mental health problems in young people, one of which may be increased social media usage. We cannot definitely say that social media causes mental health problems but the evidence is certainly starting to point in that direction.

Healthy habits to nurture mental wellbeing in young people

We know that the numbers of young people suffering from mental health problems is growing and there are multiple underlying causes. The first port of call if you are at all concerned about your child is to seek professional help. For many children however, heading back to school may be a particularly stressful time. It is crucial therefore that we equip our youngsters not just with new shoes and pencil cases at the start of the school year, but also with healthy habits that can help to build resilience and nurture mental wellbeing. This is important, not just for the year ahead, but for the rest of their lives.

Adopt new habits one at a time

Research suggests that it can take around 60 days to build a new habit, and that habits are best built one at a time. Perhaps you could encourage your child to adopt just one new healthy habit before the start of the new term? What’s interesting is that when you build a new habit, there seems to be a ‘halo effect’ – so just one new healthy habit can have a positive knock-on effect on multiple areas of your life. Researchers Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng found that students who successfully built one new habit also experienced less stress, less impulsive spending, reduced hours watching TV, healthier diet and reduced intake of alcohol, caffeine and smoking.3 It seems there is a powerful impact of changing just one thing.

Healthy habits to nurture mental wellbeing in young people. Just pick one.

✔ Consistent sleep and wake time – Sleep is crucial for every single aspect of our health and particularly for mental wellbeing. Many young people today simply aren’t getting enough sleep, often hampered by excessive exposure to smart devices or gaming before bedtime, and distracted by notifications throughout the night. Good sleep is very much linked to winding down before bedtime, having a dark, quiet bedroom free from distractions and maintaining consistent habits. One simple way to encourage better sleep in children is to agree together on a regular time for going to bed and getting up.

✔ Eat breakfast – Many young people skip breakfast and arrive at school hungry, tired and irritable without any fuel to kick-start the day. With an empty fuel tank, and blood sugar levels starting to dip, many children then reach for a sugary drink or snack at break time, setting up a vicious circle of blood sugar highs and lows throughout the day. Making time for a nutritious breakfast before school is a great way to avoid this blood sugar rollercoaster and instead support balanced energy and mental wellbeing throughout the day.
Encourage your child to adopt a daily habit of a protein-rich breakfast such as scrambled eggs on wholegrain toast or mixed berries with natural yoghurt and ground seeds.

✔ Daily omega 3 – Omega 3 fats found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel are crucial for all aspects of brain health including mood, and yet the latest National Diet & Nutrition Survey shows that most people across all age groups fail to eat even one portion of oily fish per week. A daily supplement of a thoroughly purified, stable omega 3 fish oil is generally agreed to be a safe and reliable way to up your intake.

✔ Agree on boundaries around using smart devices – Evidence is starting to stack up to suggest that there are multiple ways in which smart devices may be impacting young people’s mental wellbeing. It is crucial therefore to evaluate whether this is a concern for your child, and if so, what steps you can take to improve this. For some, this may involve agreeing boundaries around switching devices off a couple of hours before bedtime, perhaps not using a phone at mealtimes or limiting time spent on social media. Agreeing on boundaries around using smart devices together with your child is a useful habit to support mental wellbeing.

✔ Exercise outdoors – The benefits of exercise to support mental wellbeing are well documented and these can stack up even higher when you get outside in nature. Finding ways to encourage your child to engage in regular exercise is a great habit to support mental wellbeing and if it’s something you can do together, then even better.

✔ Daily dose of calming nutrients – The typical Western diet is often lacking in key nutrients that support mental health and wellbeing. Magnesium is often referred to as nature’s tranquiliser for its calming, relaxing qualities; zinc is known to support a balanced mood; vitamin C helps the body to deal with stress; B vitamins play a crucial role in overall balance and wellbeing and vitamin D is essential for neurological development and to protect the brain too. Sadly, processed, convenience foods are often stripped of these essential nutrients. Optimum nutrition starts with a great diet first and foremost; a daily multivitamin can however be a great habit to help bridge the gap.

✔ Targeted nutrients to support brain function – For older children returning back to school for a final year of exams, targeted nutrients to support brain function may be a useful support during this busy and often stressful time. Citicoline is a lesser known compound normally produced by the body and may be a useful supplement for older children. Two studies have demonstrated substantial benefits of citicoline on memory, attention, emotional control and perceptual-motor ability. A targeted supplement containing citicoline may be a useful support, especially when students are dealing with exam pressures.4,5

Change just one thing…

There are many ways to support mental health and wellbeing in young people; above are just a few of our suggestions to get you started. Above all, we encourage everyone to think about this important topic at a time when the focus is often placed on arguably less important ‘stuff’. Recent statistics show that mental health problems in young people are on the rise; we all need to take action to change that. Our best advice is to get started and change just one thing.

1.Mental health of children and young people in England, 2017. NHS Digital 22 Nov 2018
2. https://cls.ucl.ac.uk/cls_research/initial-findings-from-the-millennium-cohort-study-age-14-survey/
3. Oaten M & Cheng K. Improved self-control: the benefits of a regular program of academic study. Basic and Applied Social Psychology. 28(1): 1-16. April 2006
4. Putignano S, Gareri P, Castagna A, et al. Retrospective and observational study to assess the efficacy of citicoline in elderly patients suffering from stupor related to complex geriatric syndrome. Clin Interv Aging. 2012; 7:113–118. 27.
5. Cotroneo AM, Castagna A, Putignano S, et al. Effectiveness and safety of citicoline in mild vascular cognitive impairment: the IDEALE study. Clin Interv Aging. 2013; 8:131–137.

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