Making mental health a priority: Investing in prevention is key

Mental health is as important to children’s safety and wellbeing as their physical health. This understanding has led SOS Children’s Villages to emphasize mental health as a core component of care in recent years.

We recognize that negative experiences such as abuse can adversely impact a child’s mental health, and that neglected mental health concerns have the potential to cause further safeguarding and child protection risks.

The Independent Child Safeguarding Review (ICSR) has created greater awareness of the necessity of holistic mental health services in our programmes. As part of our response, SOS Children’s Villages has earmarked part of its safeguarding support budget to develop an action plan to provide more integrated mental health support.

Teresa Ngigi, SOS Children’s Villages Mental Health and Psychosocial Advisor, talks about the importance of good mental health, and what is being done to address the gaps in our policies and services.

Why is mental health as important to a child’s safety and wellbeing as his or her physical health? 

There is no health without mental health. Mental health is not an option but a core component of overall wellbeing, which includes mental and physical health. 

Abuse, on the other hand, very often creates conflict within the child because those meant to protect them are the ones inflicting harm. This can cause serious consequences in the overall development of the child. Trust can be broken to the core, and due to this, the child’s alarm system is likely to be constantly on the alert. This can compromise the development of other essential faculties, whether it be physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially, or morally.

You like to say mental health is not mental illness, but about addressing the holistic wellbeing of a person. What does this mean? 

Mental illness is a small component of mental health. Often when you hear people talking about mental health, they associate it with mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, depression. This is an uninformed conception of mental health. 

Mental health is the holistic wellbeing of an individual that allows them to develop to their full potential, and be able to deal with the challenges of life in a healthy way, contributing to the wellbeing of society.

There is a lot of stigma attached to mental health. Do you experience it within SOS? 

In my experience people still don’t have a clear understanding of what mental health is. Mental health is often perceived as mental illness. The stigma regarding mental health cuts across many cultures, and this needs to shift.  

Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you?” we must ask, “What happened to you?” Most of us, if not all, have experienced some form of trauma.  

Our role is to support children, young people, families and others to have the right understanding of themselves and their experiences, to know how these contribute to their wellbeing, and what they can do to enhance the quality of their lives. Attachment styles influence the way people view themselves, others, and the cosmos, and being able to repair insecure attachments goes a long way towards preventing child abuse cases.

At SOS Children’s Villages, mental health is part of the individual development plan of each child, but has it always been addressed? 

Unfortunately, the stigma and a lack of understanding have led to caregivers not always following up on children’s mental health. That needs to change. Promoting and nurturing mental health needs to become an integral part of our SOS Care Promise.

What shortcomings do you still see in mental health support in SOS Children’s Village programmes? 

The wellbeing of Child and Youth Care practitioners deserves more attention. Many have their own struggles. You cannot give what you do not have. People often parent the way they were parented. Often, mistakes come from lack of knowledge of better approaches, and therefore it is our responsibility to ensure that we equip caregivers with the skills they need to be able to offer secure attachment to children and to protect them.

There is a lot of focus on the mental health of children who have experienced abuse, but how important is mental health support to prevent abuse? 

Prevention is central to breaking the cycle of abuse. That’s why I strongly believe we can minimize incidents of abuse if child and youth care practitioners, meaning the SOS parents for instance, are trained and supported to help children deal with distress and trauma. 

SOS CV as an organization needs to be trauma informed. When everyone has a good understanding of trauma and its impact on people, we shall shift our focus to prevention as opposed to damage control. Every staff member needs to have a good understanding of these dynamics and engage in their own healing so that they can in turn be of service to others. 

Let us invest in our child and youth care practitioners. If they are well, the children are likely to be well. We focus on everyone.

What progress has been made to improve the mental health of children and caregivers in SOS programmes? 

Thankfully, a lot is being done right now. Many SOS Children’s Villages member associations are making sure there are mental health practitioners in programmes. They are also training child and youth care practitioners to understand their own mental health needs. 

We are setting up platforms to encourage young people to be vocal about mental health. In Nigeria, for example, we are assisting a non-profit organization started by young people to promote mental health among their peers. They have enlisted the support of local mental health councillors who we can help with further training.

How does SOS Children’s Villages foresee the integrating mental health holistically into its programmes? 

Child protection and mental health go hand in hand. This applies to everyone: children, young people, families, and other coworkers. Collective empowerment ensures common understanding that will lead to the shift from information to transformation. Mental health systems need to be implemented in all programming, ensuring the availability of professional mental health workers, both within SOS CV as well as service providers.

What should be our vision for the future? 

Children look up to us and in order for them to feel safe, we need to be stable ourselves, and ensure that we constantly create environments where they can be free to thrive. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood and they must know this.

The role of mental health in our safeguarding action plan 

Mental health is a key part of our safeguarding action plan in response to recommendations by Keeping Children Safe based on the ICSR. 

Funding is earmarked to implement holistic mental health services in all our programmes to prevent abuse, build resilience, and provide immediate support to children, young people or persons affected by abuse. It is a key priority out of the safeguarding action plan.  

Planned interventions include: 

  • Continuous development of mental health expertise at a “grass roots” level by strengthening mental health networks on a local, regional, and global level. 
  • National trainers to expand capacity building of local social workers and mental health practitioners. 
  • Building on the current programmes of the SOS Global Mental Health hub, based with SOS Italy

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