The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a crisis in children’s mental health.
In 2020, one in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a probable mental disorder increasing from one in nine in 2017, according to NHS-backed research.
Dr Ruth Spence, a Middlesex University Research Psychologist, has written her first children’s book amid this problem and to provide a practical mental health resource for children.
“There are children's books out there addressing mental health but often they talk about parental mental health – there is a lack of books about low mood and other symptoms of depression in children, for children." Dr Ruth Spence, MDX Research Psychologist.
The book - Charlie and the Dog who came to stay - has been released this week as the UK enters its third lockdown and schools close to all but the pupils of key workers.
Dr Spence said: “All the research suggests the pandemic is making children’s mental health issues worse.
“Children of all ages are being affected by being kept away from their peers and symptoms of depression and anxiety are on the increase. Their parents might be also be facing issues like financial uncertainty or health concerns.
“Children are affected by the disruption, isolation and uncertainty and it in turn impacts their mood.”
Charlie and the Dog who came to stay, a crowdfunded project, aims to open up the conversation between adults and children about mental health.
The picture book, illustrated by Kimiya Pahlevan, and published by Cherish Editions, includes cognitive behavioural therapy techniques that help combat depression.
The story follows Charlie, a happy girl until she makes friends with a black dog which is used to represent depression.
In different scenes the dog is squashing Charlie, disrupting her sleep or being carried on her back to highlight the impact of depression on our daily lives and mood.
Dr Spence believes that starting conversations with children about their mental health at an early age (4 to 7 years) can help prevent the development of long-standing problems later in life.
“Common mental health problems are on the rise in children – accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and social restrictions – and getting help early can prevent a problem getting worse or lasting for a long time, “ said Dr Spence.
“Picture books are a great way to educate, normalise and start discussions around mental health with children for parents, carers, teachers and other professionals.
“There are children's books out there addressing mental health but often they talk about parental mental health – there is a lack of books about low mood and other symptoms of depression in children, for children.
“My book also offers some simple techniques that children can try based on cognitive behavioural therapy so they can learn something that might help, too.”
The book was crowdfunded into existence by more than 70 supporters in a month, raising almost £3,000.
Proceeds will raise vital funds for Shawmind, a mental health charity based in Newark, Nottinghamshire, which has previously campaigned to make mental health education compulsory in UK schools.
Dr Spence, who has a PhD from the University of Cambridge is a mental health researcher who has carried out extensive research on the effects of depression and life trauma on adults and young people.
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