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The importance of encouraging boys to talk about their mental health

Sixteen million people in the UK experience mental illness – that’s one in four of us! Three out of four (75%) mental illnesses start before a child reaches their 18th birthday. 50% of mental health problems experienced by adults (excluding dementia) are established by their 14th birthday and 75% by their 24th birthday.  

Childhood and adolescence can be turbulent at the best of times. These sobering statistics show that, for some, the need for extra help and support is critical. Early intervention can help prevent and reduce mental health and wellbeing difficulties in later life.

Mental or emotional health was the top concern for young people contacting Childline in 2020/21. Over 5,600 Childline counselling sessions about mental health were with children aged 11 or under last year. However, children and young adults who are concerned about their mental health may not always share these worries with close family. And the signs that a child is having mental health issues isn’t always easy for parents or carers to spot. It can be particularly difficult to recognise the signs in boys. Analysis of the Childline data backs this up, showing that one boy for every five girls talks about their mental health with Childline.

Society still tends to have a fixed view of how ‘real men’ behave. ‘Real men’ are supposed to be tough, even stoic. Historically, they have been brought up to not show emotional distress as this was seen as weakness. And despite the work of many charities, for many boys and men, there is still a stigma around seeking help so they are reluctant to do so. The media doesn’t help either, creating an unrealistic ideal of what being male is all about: whether that’s body image, acquiring expensive, branded objects or behaving a certain way on social media.

Girls reach emotional maturity earlier than boys and have been encouraged – or shown how to express emotions. Boys are less likely to do this if their role models (and society in general) are not telling them that it is ok. Less opportunities or support in developing these emotional skills can result in emotions being communicated through behaviour.  And that can be a lonely place for boys and young men.

Without a way to process emotions, all young people, especially boys can sometimes lash out in unhealthy ways, such as using potentially harmful coping methods to deal with issues (e.g. drugs or alcohol), taking risks, or by alienating themselves, and being reluctant to reach out for help. Even if they do recognise that they have worries about their mental health and wellbeing, boys will often conceal their emotions because they are embarrassed and/or want to protect their reputation and fit in – not stand out for what they feel are all the wrong reasons. That makes them feel isolated and lonely. And concealing those concerns can take a toll on their mental health and obscure their real needs from being met.

This year, Mental Health Awareness Week (9 – 15 May) explores the experience of loneliness – a key driver of poor mental health. This annual event is organised by the Mental Health Foundation.

“Loneliness is affecting more and more of us in the UK and has had a huge impact on our physical and mental health during the pandemic. Our connection to other people and our community is fundamental to protecting our mental health and we need to find better ways of tackling the epidemic of loneliness.”

So how can we recognise the warning signs in boys that all is not well with their mental wellbeing? The symptoms of mental health vary – ADHD is different from an eating disorder, for example. But there are some behaviours that can give an indication that a child or young person is struggling:

  • Significant drop in academic performance
  • Not eating properly
  • Time off school with various physical health complaints or reluctance to go to school
  • A change in mood which is fairly consistent for 2 weeks or more
  • Extreme tiredness a lot of the time
  • Staying at home, not going out and meeting friends (social withdrawal or isolation)
  • Not being interested in things they used to enjoy
  • Becoming increasingly disruptive and defiant

This is a basic checklist of warning behaviours. Each child, boy or girl, is an individual. They have their own personality and their own way of dealing with stress. You know your own child and if you have concerns about their moods and behaviour, then you need to act sooner rather than later.

There is a shift in society’s view of mental health and wellbeing. We are talking openly about it a lot more; with high profile positive role models more openly discussing their own mental health issues. Charities, such as Boys in Mind, aim to reduce the stigma and isolation that can exist for boys and young men and help them to talk about any problems, ask for support and realise that they are not alone in having these challenges and feelings. These are all positive steps towards destigmatising mental health but we can do more.

As child and adolescent psychiatrists, we work with children and teenagers from the ages of 6 to 18, along with their families, diagnosing and treating those who have mental health and developmental disorders. If you have concerns, do get in touch. We can have a chat over the phone to talk through those concerns and establish what the issues are.

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