A crucial component in improving support for mental health is an understanding of all the factors that can be involved; speech, language and communication skills are factors that play a significant role. However, the relationship between speech, language and communication and mental health is a complex one, involving a number of aspects.
Many children and young people identified with mental health needs also have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). Studies tell us that as many as 45% of young people referred to mental health services have underlying communication difficulties, however these are often unidentified, meaning that the right support is either not offered or not accessible to those struggling.
One of the issues facing these youngsters is that it is harder for them to access the talk-based support that is often offered. Many interventions, support or recommended therapeutic techniques such as cognitive behaviour therapy rely on good ‘higher order language’ skills – the ability to discuss opinions flexibly, use language to reason and to interpret abstract concepts such as feelings. Consequently, not identifying a difficulty with language means that young people will be unable to benefit from the limited support which is available.
In order to get a true understanding of the relationship between speech, language and communication and mental health, we also need to think of it another way. Communication skills enable us to build and maintain relationships, to understand and express feelings and emotions – and to help us problem solve. Children and young people with poor communication skills therefore can struggle with these aspects of life, with obvious consequences. It’s harder for children to talk through their thoughts and feelings, harder for them to interact with other children socially and to solve problems or to understand the subtle social rules of interaction – they can easily feel lonely and isolated. This can be seen even in quite young children with language difficulties; they are more likely to be withdrawn, and also more likely to be ignored by their playmates. Therefore poor language and communication skills are a risk factor in children and young people’s mental health.
Getting the right support for those struggling is possible, however early identification of communication difficulties in children and young people with communication problems and mental needs will be crucial in this. This means that those supporting them need to understand the complex relationship between speech, language and communication and mental health.
There are some promising moves towards this as part of the Government’s new proposals. The recent plan from the government to introduce mental health first aid training for staff in schools is a welcome step forward; at I CAN we would want to ensure that those trained understand the crucial links between mental health and speech, language and communication, to ensure that children and young people get the support that they need.
About the author
Mandy Grist is a Speech and Language Advisor at I CAN, the children’s communication charity.
I CAN is the children’s communication charity. Experts in helping children develop the speech, language and communication skills they need to thrive in a 21st century world.