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Advice for parents, guardians and carers on how to help and support a child or young person with mental ill health, suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviours

Many parents, guardians and carers are concerned about how their children, whatever their age, are feeling at present. The corona virus outbreak is having an impact on everybody’s lives. Schools are closed, contact with family and friends limited and social and leisure activities cancelled.  

At this time, it is understandable that children and young people may be feeling anxious and upset. Their life may feel unpredictable and out of control and their usual mechanisms of support through friends, family members and professionals more limited.

During the COVID-19 pandemic NHS services are working as usual so its important to remember to ask for help and not hold back.

What should I do if I am worried about my child’s mental health and I think it’s getting serious?

  • Make time to listen to them: Create a calm safe space where they can communicate how they are feeling without judgement.
  • Try to understand the problems and provide reassurance that you have heard them and are there to help. The problems could be something you don’t notice at first, such as:
    • Relationship problems with friends and family
    • Worries about schoolwork or exams
    • Being bullied
    • A recent death of a friend or family member
    • Experience of traumatic events such as abuse
    • Self-harm or suicide by someone close to them
    • Low self-esteem
    • Worries or issues with their sexual or gender identity
    • Chronic illness or disability
    • Substance misuse
    • Coping with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders
  • Take time to talk to your child: This is particularly key in relation to children and young people, who may feel overwhelmed by a changing situation which isn’t being clearly explained in a way they can understand. Some young people may find it easier to talk while doing something together such as playing in the park, going for a walk, painting or other activities.
  • Keep an eye on your child: Look out for symptoms that your child’s mental health may be deteriorating, including symptoms of anxiety and low mood or worrying changes in behaviour. Seek specialist health advice and support and increase vigilance, including checking if they are accessing websites about self-harm and suicide.
  • Help your child do positive activities which means they aren’t isolating themselves: Positive activities including exercise and contact with family and friends can provide a distraction from negative thoughts and may help them open up about their feelings.
  • Support children and young people with disabilities: Children and young people with disabilities including those with autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities and ADHD may find the impact of coronavirus particularly difficult to manage. It is important to explain change and manage any anxiety and distress they may be experiencing. Seek immediate advice if they are already in contact with specialist health and social care services or contact your GP. The National Autistic Society have helpful advice on their website on how to deal with this uncertain time with the coronavirus. Seek immediate advice if they are already under the care of specialist health and social care services or contact your GP.
  • Seek specialist advice and support quickly if you think they have suicidal thoughts or are self-harming: It is important that you do not ignore these and that you speak to a GP urgently to get the right help and support – or contact some of the services detailed below. If there is a threat to life, call 999.
  • Finally, as a parent or carer, look after your own mental health too: This will help you to best support yourself and those you care about. Remember to talk to your family and friends about how you are feeling, and seek help for yourself from the NHS and other support services if it’s all getting too much. It’s okay not to feel okay.

What can I do if I am worried about my child right now?

During the COVID-19 pandemic services are still there for you, so don’t hold back asking for help.

If they have taken an overdose or need urgent medical help, then call 999 or take them to the nearest A&E.

If you notice any physical injuries on your child, such as deep cuts or burns then you need to contact NHS 111 online or your GP for advice.

If your child needs urgent mental health support or advice, check nhs.uk for services in your area, including 24/7 crisis support.

Anyone in a crisis can also text 85258 for SHOUT the UK’s first 24/7 crisis text service on, free on all major mobile networks, for anyone in crisis anytime.

If your child is currently being supported by a Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (sometimes known as CAMHS), Paediatric Services or Children’s Social Care then talk to them if you are worried about your child. ​ 

If you are not sure what to do, you can contact your GP for advice, check NHS 111 online.

Where can I get help and support for me?

It’s okay not to feel okay and looking after a child or young person who is unwell with their mental health is a big deal. The NHS has online information on how to access help and support. Remember to look after yourself as well as your loved ones, and you matter too.

There are other support services available, too:

  • YoungMinds Parents Helpline is available for parents, guardians and carers and you can call them on 0808 802 5544; 9.30am to 4pm on weekdays.
  • Samaritans is also available and can be called on 0116 123 or email them at jo@samaritans.org

For parents and carers worried about their child’s eating problems or disorder you can also refer to BEAT’s advice and get in touch with them for support via their helpline on 0808 801 0677

The NHS has also produced advice for children and young people, which you can find here.

Dr Prathiba Chitsabesan

Dr Prathiba Chitsabesan is the Associate National Clinical Director for Children and Young People’s Mental Health for NHS England.

Prathiba is a Consultant in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry working in a large mental health and community trust (Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust). Lead consultant since 2005, she became Clinical Director in 2015 and continues to work clinically within a community child and adolescent mental health service in South Manchester. She graduated from Medicine (University of Manchester) before completing her MD, inspiring her interest in the needs of children and young people in contact with the criminal justice system.

Over the last 12 years she has published in journals and books and contributed to national reports and guidance for the Youth Justice Board and Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

She has contributed to the development of the Comprehensive Health Assessment Tool across the youth justice secure estate for the Department of Health and NHS England and continues to be research active as an Honorary Research Fellow and Lecturer for the Offender Health Research Network (University of Manchester).

As a clinical advisor (Greater Manchester and East Cheshire Strategic Clinical Networks), she has also promoted the development of regional clinical guidance across Greater Manchester.