It’s easy to get nostalgic about being a kid. Playing outside, drawing on the sidewalk with chalk, having two months off in the summer, getting in that two-hour power nap. For many of us, childhood might feel synonymous with a simpler time, especially when stacked up against the challenges of adulthood.
As we move through life, we tend to forget that being a kid can be downright hard. Growing up is different for everyone, but remember the pressure to do well in school, look a certain way, or excel in extracurricular activities? What about the anxiety of meeting new people and wanting to be liked? Some of this isn’t necessarily unique to childhood, but when we consider that kids have less life experience and fewer coping skills, we can certainly empathize with how tough things can feel. And if persistent feelings of sadness, loneliness, stress, or anxiety go unaddressed, it can be grounds for serious problems to develop.
The Centre for Mental Health and Addiction indicates that young people are more likely to experience mental illness than any other age group, and that 70 per cent of mental health problems take root in adolescence. Yet, only 20 per cent of children that need help with mental health actually receive that support, setting the stage for challenges to follow them into adulthood and become more complex (i.e., harder to treat) over time. These are alarming stats, particularly for those of us with young people in our lives that we want to see flourish. But the good news is, every adult can support kids with building mental wellness and resilience.
Whether you’re a parent, caregiver, relative, teacher, coach, mentor, or friend, you are what’s called a “natural support.” Natural supports are developed organically through the course of daily living with people in our social network. And as more people openly talk about mental health challenges, the higher the likelihood you’ll find yourself in a situation where you can be a natural support. Kids are already talking about mental health, and as adults, we need to know how to engage in these conversations in ways that help children and youth with their concerns. It’s all about learning—and putting into action—the right skills.
Recognizing the need to help adults build their capacity in this area, The Social Impact Lab launched a tool called the Natural Supports Simulation. This interactive tool invites adults to navigate through different scenarios that involve concerning behaviours in children and youth through a Q&A (think: choose your own adventure) format. At the end, the user is provided with skills to improve, along with a list of skills and resources, to help prepare them as a natural support. It is available online at no cost.
“The Natural Supports Simulation is an important tool in our community because it gives us, as adults, a different way to understand mental health concerns being experienced by children and youth,” says Beth Gignac, Chief Impact and innovation Officer of United Way of Calgary and Area. She explains the tool helps us pick up on signs of distress that can often be very subtle—even non-verbal. “It helps us think about how to ask questions that are non-judgmental and nonthreatening and provides space for young people to be confident and comfortable in sharing what might be troubling them.”
The simulation was developed in consultation with subject-matter-experts from Alberta Health Services, Calgary Counselling Centre, carya, Catholic Family Services, Government of Alberta: Children’s Services, McMann, The Distress Centre, and The Alex.