How Grandparents Can Support a Young Person with Mental Health Issues

It’s no secret that the statistics for our young generation’s mental health make for terrifying reading.

A reported one in four girls aged 14 has self-harmed, with the number admitted to hospital twice what it was twenty years ago. Suicide attempts resulting in hospitalisation have more than doubled in the past eight years.

Huge numbers of our young are struggling with anxiety, depression and related disorders.  Referrals for mental health support are up 60% since 2017, but this increase in demand means children who’ve attempted to take their own lives wait for months for NHS support.

It’s incredibly difficult for us older people to understand why, after all, this generation has access to every available resource to learn and develop imaginable, and young parents are given more advise then ever before, but it’s not enough.

Despite their apparent privilege, our youth is unhappy – so what’s gone so wrong and how do we help?

Lack of connection:

Jane is often saddened by the sheer number of letters and emails she gets from teens and young adults beset by appalling loneliness; something we once thought applied more to the elderly.

Digital connections make a poor substitute for real relationships. Interestingly, at a teen conference, it was suggested that young people are almost on the verge of losing the social ability to cope.

At the same time, they’ve been raised in a totally different way, much more connected with their feelings, in a more politically correct environment.

Many prefer to stay at home and make their relationships online. It feels easier in many ways, especially with teens, for whom avoiding social embarrassment feels critical, but experts know that isolation leads to increased rates of depression and anxiety.

How to help: Make time to talk from as early in childhood as possible, keeping it light whenever you can (never launch in with a serious discussion).

Get your teens and young people to teach you about the things that interest them, and don’t be afraid to ask what things are like for them.  Even if they show no interest, keep inviting them to dinner, outings and if all else fails, send them letters and cards. 

Managing emotional reactions:

It can be hard to have empathy for young people talking about being ‘triggered’ by talk of sensitive knowing that just a few generations ago, young men and women marched to war.

The media is especially cruel, stoking the fuel with talk of ‘snowflakes’ with no resilience. In our experience that simply isn’t true.

Whilst they might not have to fire a gun, this generation faces financial constraints, a lack of prospects, potentially never being able to buy a home and a barrage of pressure online.

At the same time, they’ve been raised in a totally different way, much more connected with their feelings, in a more politically correct environment. That’s not their fault, and they shouldn’t be berated for not being the same as us.

How to help:  Share your own stories of success and failure.  Don’t overpraise – try to be positive about the effort the young person has shown rather than the outcome and never belittle their feelings, even if you don’t really understand them.

Talk of medication:

For our ‘get up and get on’ generation, it seems almost abhorrent for children and young people to be put on drugs and it’s certainly worrying to hear the statistics about young people needing anti-depressants.

It’s ok to feel worried about the long-term implications of taking strong medicines, but research shows that they work in helping to manage the symptoms of depression.

What does need to happen is that the young person is offered treatment alongside the pills.  CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), counselling and exercise all offer strong results in helping the young person learn to manage their symptoms.

How to help: Stay away from judgement. Instead, learn about the different types of drugs and therapy’s and try to offer support in helping to access the right ones.

Parental support:

When a young person goes into a crisis it can be easy for families to start blaming each other.  Don’t.  Your daughter-in-law no more created their child’s illness then you did.

Instead, try and offer non-critical support and time.  Chances are their parents are worried sick (as you are) and desperately keen to be there.

Whilst the 21st century offers many wonders, the loss of family…extended family especially – has sadly declined, leaving many of us rootless.

How to help: Offer to help at home with chores, or watching the young person, and encourage their parents to make time for self-care.

Parents of young people with mental illness are at massively high risks of struggling themselves because of the pressure, so the more you can do to lift that for them, the better.  Don’t be offended if they say no though – it can be hard to let people in.

Finally, don’t underestimate the sheer power of just being there.  Knowing that they’re loved, heard, and respected are all hugely important to a struggling child.

Janey says:

 No matter what age we are we ‘bleed’.  We are troubled by things that if we spoke to someone, we’d realise were ‘normal’ but when we don’t share, we internalise and that’s when the rot sets in.

Whilst the 21st century offers many wonders, the loss of family…extended family especially – has sadly declined, leaving many of us rootless.

A grandparent living in or close is rare these days – and I have always felt it a tragedy.  

My granny was a bit unable physically – but she was always around.  Apart from her terrible cooking she had nothing better to do than sit with me when the grownups were busy – and listen.  

I now see her advice wasn’t always appropriate – but she was there, and she was on my side.  I would always go to bed with a clearer idea of what was bothering me and how to deal with it. 

How wonderful it would be in this often-lonely world if we all had an older granny/granddad to speak to.  

Wonderful for the young person in question – but fantastic for the older person too. We experience depression and loneliness too – and more worryingly a great loss of value.  

What a huge waste of resource us older generations are with a lifetime of experience AND empathy… which is in pretty short supply these days.

The adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is true still.  I’d love to see a space in the wider community where age and all its values are seen as a resource – rather than a burden to be picked up by the taxpayer.

My advice in the meantime is to get with the times.  Learn how to use Skype and messaging tools to stay-in-touch and be there as much as possible, even if you live far away.

Where to get expert help

  • If you have any concerns that a young person may harm themselves, take them immediately to A and E
  • mentalhealthorg.uk has lots of userful resources
  • Young Minds Crisis Messenger, text YM TO 85258
  • For panic attacks, call No Panic on 0844 967 4848
  • Childline: 0800 1111
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