Suzi Godson, psychologist, Times columnist, and co-founder of the MeeTwo mental help app for young people, shares some valuable advice on how to help anxious teenagers cope with the COVID-19 crisis.
Alleviate uncertainty by being honest.
The uncertainty created by the current crisis is hard for everyone, but it is particularly difficult for young people who have a tendency to be anxious anyway. Some are worried about missing exams. Others are struggling to cope with isolation, or are anxious about family members getting sick, or losing their jobs. Although it is tempting to try to minimise their distress, anxiety is a very normal and rational response to uncertainty, so honesty is a better policy. Staying informed can help young people feel more in control, but constant news updates can increase anxiety. Introduce them to alternatives such as https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/ a free online paper which provides a positive perspective on global affairs and is full of inspiring stories of young people making a difference. And focus on the good things that are coming out of this situation: an epidemic of altruism, closer communities and unparalleled respect for the NHS.
Signpost them to trusted apps
Social media is a lifeline for young people who feel isolated, but sometimes, it’s easier to talk about difficult things if no one knows who you are. MeeTwo is a multi award winning app which provides free, anonymous mental help and peer support to young people aged 11-25. The app is backed by the NHS and is pre-moderated which means that every post and reply is screened in advance. The most common issues on the app relate to non-clinical concerns around friends and family, but the app also supports young people with more serious issues such as depression, anxiety and self harm. Age ranges are banded, so eleven year olds see posts from young people aged up to thirteen whereas eighteen year olds see posts from young people who are over sixteen.The MeeTwo App is free to download and is available from the App Store, Google Play and the NHS Apps library. You can find other recommended apps to help manage anxiety here https://covid19.orcha.co.uk/
Give them good books to read.
In 2019 we published the MeeTwo Teenage Mental Help Handbook which won the British Medical Association’s prestigious Health and Social Care Book of the Year award. The book combines personal stories from young people, interviews with the top UK experts in adolescent mental health and a comprehensive directory of the best helplines, support groups, apps, books, Ted talks, You Tube videos and self help activities for young people. You can buy the book here https://www.meetwo.co.uk/shop/the-meetwo-handbook. Other books that our users recommend are ‘Reasons to stay alive’ by Matt Haig, The boy, the mole and the fox by Charlie Mackesy, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and the Monstress fantasy comics series by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda,
Keep a consistent sleep routine.
There is a bidirectional relationship between sleep and mental health problems. You can have acute sleep disturbance as part of depression, anxiety, or psychosis, but poor sleep or sleep disturbances are also a risk factor for developing mental health problems. The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep per night for young people, but with no school, young people are staying up much later. In the early hours of the morning when the house is dark and there is no one around to help, anxiety tends to escalate, so during this particular period, getting to sleep at a reasonable time is much more important than waking up early. Everyone knows that tech before bed keeps you awake, but sleep tracker apps such as “Sleepio” or ‘Sleep Cycle’ can be a helpful way for young people to understand their own sleep patterns. Essential oils such as lavender sprayed on a pillow can have a calming effect, and some anxious young people find weighted ‘Gravity Blankets’ very beneficial.
Know what to do in a panic attack.
Panic attacks can come out the blue and often happen for no reason. During a panic attack a young person is gripped by intense, overwhelming fear. They might feel like they can’t breathe or see properly. They may feel nauseous and sweaty and their heart will be beating so hard that they genuinely feel they might die. It’s a terrifying feeling, but most panic attacks only last between 5 and 20 minutes, and no one has ever died from one. If your child feels like they are having a panic attack they need to focus on controlled breathing. Inhale for a count of four. Hold for seven. Exhale for eight. And repeat. Sitting down with feet pressed into the floor and eyes closed will help to ground them. So will getting outside in the fresh air. Clenching fists and arms and then unclenching them will help to release tension and help them to calm down. You can read more about managing panic attacks here https://www.childline.org.uk/info-advice/your-feelings/anxiety-stress-panic/about-panic-attacks/
Manage your own anxiety and make coping mechanisms a family affair.
Mothers of children who suffer from anxiety are three times more likely to suffer from anxiety themselves, so pay attention to your own behaviour. This situation is unprecedented so don’t bottle up your feelings, but do manage the way in which you express them. Young people take their cues from the adults around them and distress can rapidly become contagious. One of the best things about lockdown is the fact that it has given us all more time to spend together. From sharing exercise, to talking as a family over dinner, exploring meditation apps such as Smiling Mind or Headspace, doing crafting or art, or simply gathering around the TV to watch a boxset, doing things together will distract everyone and help you all to cope better.
Participate in the Co-SPACE (COVID-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents, and Children in Epidemics Survey.
Professor Cathy Creswell, Departments of Psychiatry and Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford is tracking the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Filling in the monthly surveys will help researchers to better understand what protects children and young people from deteriorating mental health. Throughout the course of the study, they will summarise key findings and upload useful resources for parents at www.emergingminds.org.uk.
The MeeTwo App
The MeeTwo App is free to download and is available from the App Store, Google Play and the NHS Apps library. More information about the app is available at www.meetwo.co.uk.
“When it comes to teenage mental health, who knows if social media really is the problem, but the MeeToo app shows it might be part of the solution”
Sir Simon Wessely, MD, FRCP, FRCPSYCH, FMEDSCI and President of the Royal Society of Medicine (2017-2020)