Authors: Rasanat Fatima Nawaz1, and Professor Tamsin Ford2
1PhD student, University of Cambridge
2Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Cambridge
The theme of Children’s Mental Health Week 2023 is Let’s Connect. Connectedness can play an important role in promoting mental health and well-being for children and young people, as well as adults. We are social animals, who develop and thrive in groups. Children who feel socially, emotionally, physically, and intellectually connected tend to have better mental health outcomes than their less integrated peers.
There are several types of connectedness that can benefit children and young people, which can all be beneficial through the provision of support, a sense of belonging, and opportunities for personal growth and development.
- Social connectedness, which refers to the sense of belonging and feeling connected to a group or community. Benefits of social connectedness include improved mental health, increased self-esteem, and reduced risk of depression and anxiety.
- Emotional connectedness, which describes the feeling of being understood and supported by others. Benefits of emotional connectedness include improved communication and problem-solving skills, increased self-esteem, and reduced risk of depression and anxiety.
- Cultural connectedness, which is the sense of belonging to a particular culture or group. Benefits of cultural connectedness include a stronger sense of identity and self-worth, increased resilience, and improved mental health.
- Connectedness to nature or the sense of connection to the natural environment is associated with improved mental health, increased physical activity, and reduced stress.
- Connectedness to community, which depicts the sense of belonging to a specific community or place. Benefits of connectedness to community include increased civic engagement, improved mental health and well-being.
Research shows that children who feel more connected to their families, peers, and communities are less likely to experience mental health problems such as anxiety and depression (Raniti et al 2022). Connectedness is also linked to better academic performance and overall well-being. Parents / caregivers and adults working with families should help children and young people to establish and maintain positive connections, and to create an environment in which children feel connected, safe, loved, and supported. In contrast, children and young people who lack a sense of connection often struggle to form healthy relationships with peers as well as adults, and may have difficulty regulating their emotions and behaviour. Poor connectedness can also lead to increased risk for mental health conditions, particularly anxiety and depression. Lack of connections with teachers and classmates can negatively influence their academic performance and future social development. School climate and connectedness is an important focus for those interested in promoting socio-emotional competence as well as academic achievement.
Bullying is probably our most tractable public mental health risk factor. Children and young people who have strong connections with their peers, family, and school community are less likely to bully others or be bullied themselves. Such children and young people have more positive relationships and a better sense of self-worth, which can buffer them against the negative effects of bullying. In contrast, children and young people who lack connectedness may be more vulnerable to bullying, as they may have difficulty forming healthy relationships and may feel a sense of isolation and low self-worth. They may also be more likely to engage in bullying behaviour as a way to gain a sense of power and control.
Children and young people can face a variety of challenges when it comes to connecting with others and building social networks. Cost of living, COVID-19 pandemic, and lack of community are some factors that can make it harder to form connections. Extracurricular activities can play an important role in helping young people form connections and build social networks, so we need to ensure access. The cost of extracurricular activities, such as equipment, uniforms, and membership fees, can be prohibitive for some young people and their families. Young people who live in rural or under-served areas may not have access to a wide variety of extracurricular activities, limiting their opportunities to connect with others through shared interests. Young people may also be hesitant to participate in extracurricular activities if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable in the activity location. Young people who have to work or take care of family members also may not have the time to participate in extracurricular activities.
Parents, caregivers, educators, and other adults working with children and young people need to recognize and overcome these barriers and create inclusive environments that respect diversity and promote belonging. Key to building connectedness is the provision of opportunities for children and young people to develop positive relationships, feel valued and supported, and to participate in activities that they enjoy. Support for conflict resolution, problem solving and activities that build a sense of identity, mastery and group membership are likely to help this process. Additionally, creating a positive school culture and implementing anti-bullying programs can also help to prevent bullying and promote connectedness among students.
To quote John Donne; no man is an island. We all require the support and company of others to thrive. So let’s Connect during, and after, this Child Mental Health Week, and keep nurturing connections between our communities beyond it.
I am currently a third year PhD candidate in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge. My research focuses on self-harm and suicide in schools and other educational establishments. I started researching self-harm in young people as a research assistant in Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. From this work, I have successfully published peer-reviewed papers using quantitative and qualitative methods on improving care for children and reducing harm in healthcare. (Bio and picture from the University of Cambridge)
Tamsin Ford is Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge. She researches the organisation, delivery, and effectiveness of services and interventions for children and young people’s mental health. Her research covers the full range of psychopathology and agencies, practitioners and interventions that relate to the mental health of children and young people. Every interaction with a child presents an opportunity to intervene to improve their developmental trajectory. Her work has direct relevance to policy, commissioning and practice.
Tamsin completed her postgraduate training in psychiatry on the Royal London Hospital Training rotation and then the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospitals, after which, she completed her PhD at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London. She moved to Exeter in 2007, where she established a group of researchers whose work focuses on the effectiveness of services and interventions to support mental health and well-being of children and young people. In October 2019 she moved to the University of Cambridge.
Tamsin has been a member of ACAMH since 1996. She was an Editor for ACAMH’s journal CAMH for six years, stepping down as lead editor in June 2014. She has been a board member for ACAMH since 2011, and vice-chair since September 2020.