Ever since COVID19 began, we’ve worried about young people’s mental health. Everyone’s mental health, but two groups of people more than any other: young people and people whose mental health was already poor. Young people whose mental health was already poor would be likely to suffer most. And so it seems. On the other hand, we know that many young people have found their mental health improve. Some people experience lockdown much more harshly than others, with worse housing conditions and a mass of factors that make a difference to mood, anxiety and well-being. Some students have hated not being at school and seeing their friends; others have enjoyed avoiding the daily pressures that school and peer contact can bring.
My work provides understanding, solutions and strategies for young people to have the best well-being possible. PSHE departments in schools use these tools and school libraries now know that they need my books because young people actually read them!
My books, talks and PSHE well-being teaching materials for schools aim to do two things:
- Show young people how to keep their mental health and well-being strong, to try to prevent problems
- Show young people with already low well-being how they can improve their state of mind with some well-tried lifestyle advice
Are you a parent or teacher or other adult concerned about the well-being of young person between the age of 10 and 25?
Are you a young person concerned about your own state of mind and level of stress?
Today I’m going to give you five healthy lifestyle activities to consider, things which really help. They are practical, evidence-based actions for yourself or someone you care about. Each requires a bit of preparation (which is why I call them big steps, not small ones) but each is designed to be pleasurable AND healthy. They will help prevent problems if you are well and nip them in the bud if you are showing signs of low well-being and high anxiety. I’m not saying that preventing all mental health problems is this easy but I am saying that these are genuinely useful, practical, positive strategies that will help. And if you go to a doctor, the first thing they are supposed to do is offer lifestyle advice.
1. Make a distraction tool list
When our thoughts start to spiral, as mine did at 2am last night, we need to know what to do right now to stop the spiral continuing. So, we need a list of things which we can call on as strategies. There should be more than one on the list because not all items will be accessible at all times.
They do need to be things that occupy a lot of your concentration so make sure you factor that in when you make your choices.
Here are some of mine: read a book, do a difficult puzzle, write a poem, make a to-do list, plan a meal, watch a documentary.
What are yours? Write them down and pin to your wall. Do any preparations you need to make them easy to access the moment you need something.
2. Be creative
Everyone can be creative. This does not mean everyone can instantly be professionally creative – that takes a lot of practice (but is definitely worth working towards!) But there are so many activities anyone can try to express their creativity, have fun, let off steam, engage their brain and feel great.
Go to a craft or hobby website and get some idea of what’s out there. Then you can choose something according to your budget – and some things cost nothing. Make a picture with leaves or dried flowers or pictures from old magazines or bits of cloth. Try Hobbycraft or Tate or Gathered or any that you find when you search “craft for young people” or whatever you think would find what you’re looking for!
Your creativity could be in music, writing, drama, dance, gardening, baking, design, invention, video-making. The world is there for you, even if you are stuck indoors during a pandemic!
3. Nurture your network
Everyone needs someone to talk to sometimes. It needn’t be loads of people but we must know who we can turn to, whether to share happy news or a problem. And we need more than one person because a) not all of them will always be available and b) different people will be better in different situations.
But there are two things to know about friendships:
- They don’t usually materialise by themselves. We have to take actions such as starting conversations, joining activities or groups or social activities. Sometimes we might not like doing that, at least at first, because it can be hard and sometimes stressful. But we have to make the effort to try every now and then.
- They need maintenance. Friendships fade if we don’t feed them. We needn’t do something every day or even every week, but every now and then we must connect with our friends, to have fun or to share our lives in some way.
My suggestions are:
- If you think you’d like to make new friends and connections, seek opportunities for joining something – online or offline – that you might enjoy even if it is scary at first. Don’t rush: take time. Chat to a parent or another friend about what you could do. Maybe your friend could join, too, and you could both make new friends and strengthen your own friendship?
- If you have a friend who might be having a hard time, contact them and ask how they are. Just a simple “I was thinking of you the other day – how are you doing?” Let them know you’re there, that you think of them, that you are willing to listen.
- If you have a friend you haven’t seen for a while, get in touch and suggest something.
- Write a note or make a card and send it to a friend. It will make you and them feel good.
What went well
I’ve written about this powerful wellbeing tool before. It sounds so simple – because it is – and maybe you think it couldn’t possibly make a difference. It’s not a wish washy positive-thinking thing: it really does work. All you have to do is think of three things that were good about today. Anything small or big. The sun shone, you ate your favourite lunch, you had a long bath, you tried your best in English (or art or PE or tech), you answered a question right, you knew the answer even if you didn’t say it, you heard a funny story, your teacher didn’t give you any homework, a thing you were worried about didn’t happen.
- Mood is never permanent – it rises and falls. The more times you can push it up instead of letting it stay down, the better your overall mood line.
- Every thought is a neural network (or many networks). Every time you have any thought it makes a neural path or strengthens existing ones. By focusing on things that went well, you force your brain to make or strengthen a positive thought network, making it easier to have again.
- If you do this every day
5. Plan something FUN
We all need something to look forward to. I often talk about taking small moments of relaxation, little things like taking a bath or chilling with a magazine or lying on the warm grass. But now I’m talking about something bigger. What you choose will depend on you: what you like, what you’re allowed to do, what you can plan. But here are the rules:
- It must be something that is not going to be today or tomorrow but ideally at least a week away. This is so you can spend lots of time planning the details and, crucially, getting excited about it.
- It must be something you don’t often do.
- It must be something FUN but you define what fun is. It has to be something you want to do not something you think you should do.
- That’s all. But you have to choose whether you want it to be something you do on your own or with other people.
Here are some ideas. Most can be adapted to social distancing but, where they can’t, it will be something to look ahead to!
- A sponsored event for charity
- Publish and launch an ebook anthology of you and your friends’ writing or drawing about COVID-19
- A birthday party for someone
- A surprise for a favourite grandparent
- A picnic – socially distanced if necessary
- A treasure hunt – real or online
- An online party or pizza night via Zoom
- Spooky story night
- Create, practise and perform some music, dance or drama – online if necessary
None of these is a magic wand. I can’t wave all your troubles away. but I can help you lift your mood and get back in control of those times when the world seems to want to crush you.
You can do this!
For teachers looking for PSHE and wellbeing teaching resources and ideas to tackle stress and improve teenage mental health, see here for videos, other teaching materials and the opportunities for Live Online Q&A. Do take a look. And if you don’t see what you’re looking for, just contact me and ask if I’ll do it!