WHEN three-year-old Zach Chesworth kicked and screamed because he felt too anxious to leave the house, his mum Jenny feared that history was repeating itself.
At the age of six, Jenny had experienced her first panic attack.
Labelled a hypochondriac by her GP, it was 22 years before she got the help she needed.
Watching Zach, now seven, fighting his own battles so young, Jenny was terrified he was following in her footsteps.
“It was really difficult to see him struggling,” she says.
“I knew exactly how he was feeling because that’s how I was when I was little.
“I’d felt so alone for so many years and I was scared Zach could grow up feeling the same.”
Jenny, 35, and Zach are just two examples of how mental health issues can blight childhood.
NHS figures show 1,005,972 anti-depressant prescriptions were issued last year to teenagers.
That’s almost 20,000 every week, an 11 per cent rise in two years.
Jenny, also mum to Zara, three, first picked up on Zach’s anxiety in March 2020.
‘Kicked and screamed to avoid going outside’
Jenny, married to Stephen, 46, a production manager, says: “Zach had always been a happy little boy, so when he started to show signs of anxiety, I was really aware of the change.
“He would tell me it wasn’t safe to go outside and would get really upset at the mention of going for a walk.
“It coincided with the Covid lockdowns. They really affected him.”
In 2021, as pandemic restrictions eased, Zach’s anxieties worsened.
Jenny, from Rossendale, Lancs, says: “My brother and sister-in-law visited with their kids and Zach hid under the dining room table and refused to come out to the garden.
“If we tried to coax him out, he kicked and screamed.
“He also became obsessed with electricity.
“He wouldn’t touch a light switch because he was convinced he was going to be electrocuted.
“He would wash his hands constantly, feeling anxious touching ‘dirty’ things because he was scared they would make him sick.
“That only exacerbated his anxiety around leaving the house.”
Sadly, Jenny’s story is not unusual.
Over the past two years, mum-of-two Michelle has seen her 13-year-old son Alfie become a shadow of his former self.
Once a grade-A student, Alfie began suffering “meltdowns” after he started secondary school.
He hasn’t attended for more than a year.
Michelle, who lives in Leeds and works in PR, says: “He refuses to go out of the house without a hoodie or hat on because he wants to hide as much as possible.
“His mental health has deteriorated and he doesn’t — or can’t — talk about what is happening to him.
“Sometimes he will come out with statements like ‘I’m scared’ or ‘I wish I didn’t feel like this’.”
Michelle says that even though Alfie’s school has been understanding, a lack of mental-health support has made a bad situation worse.
She adds: “I wish somebody could guide both me and Alfie’s dad through the steps to help him get better, but it feels like a minefield.
“We just want our happy, adventurous child back.”
Experts say stories like those of Michelle and Jenny are all too common and warn the situation is only getting worse.
Marjorie Wallace, founder of mental health charity Sane, says: “There seems to be almost an epidemic of mental-health disorders among mainly girls, but also young boys in the last two to three years.
“One in four girls is reporting depression and anxiety.
“Fifty per cent of our callers talk about self-harm.
“In two years, eating disorders in people aged ten to 24 have increased by 42 per cent and the incidences of self-harm increased by 32 per cent in girls aged 13 to 16.”
Marjorie believes the “isolation” triggered by the Covid lockdowns, coupled with the increasing amount of time kids spend online, is behind the surge in children’s mental health troubles.
She says: “Social media is one of the major factors in the incidences of self-harm and reporting of depression and anxiety in children.”
In a bid to combat the crisis, GPs are dishing out antidepressants like never before.
Last year, prescriptions of mood-boosting medication for youngsters soared past one million for the first time — despite NHS guidance that antidepressants should only be prescribed alongside psychological therapy.
But a lack of counselling support means GPs often have no other option.
Marjorie says: “The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are so overwhelmed, they cannot meet the demand for this huge increase.”
‘Thousands more like my son’
“The GP is faced with the choice of putting the child on a list where they may be waiting for months, even up to a year, to see a counsellor — or sending them away with no treatment at all and them feeling even more hopeless.
“So GPs are prescribing anti-depressants, not always with the recommended therapies in place, simply because there’s no alternative.”
Today’s pill-popping culture is in stark contrast to when Jenny was a young girl.
After burying her anxiety for more than two decades, she was finally prescribed antidepressants in 2017 and was given cognitive behavioural therapy.
Keen to use her experience to help others, she then trained in mental health advocacy and youth mental health.
She had no idea her knowledge would soon be needed closer to home.
After Zach’s anxiety flared up, Jenny devised home-made flashcards to encourage him to open up about his feelings.
Her “monster cards” feature an emotion on one side and a mindful exercise, a breathing exercise or a question on the reverse.
Jenny says: “We would do fun exercises like shark-fin breathing (where you place your hand in front of your forehead, fingers pointing up like a shark fin, then slowly lower it as you breathe out) or answer prompts, like ‘name three things that made you happy today’.
“The changes were gradual but I could see progress.
“We really started communicating about emotions and because Zach is a visual learner, he loved the cards.”
“But I realised that if Zach was suffering, there would be thousands more like him.”
In 2021, Jenny launched website Be Happy Resources which offers downloadable educational and support tools for kids, based on therapist-approved techniques.
It is now used by parents, schools, and NHS clinicians.
Jenny says: “We just want to help as many families and children as we can.”
And while Zach still has anxious moments, he is now thriving.
“He struggled going back to school after the summer holidays, but on the whole he’s totally different,” says Jenny.
“He’s got lots of friends and he’s doing really well.”
- Additional reporting: Tiffany Wallis and Jenny Paul
If your child is struggling to cope
TRY Jenny’s top tips . . .
BEWARE THE EMOTIONAL MASK: Sometimes teachers do not see what’s going on because children “mask” how they feel at school
Zach can have tantrums at home due to masking all day. It is very stressful.
When I spoke to his teacher, they had no idea how he felt as he does a great job of hiding it.
Speaking to teachers can help schools put measures in place, such as creating calm spaces and allowing children to be excused from class when needed.
PINPOINT TANTRUM TRIGGERS: Children can find it hard to pinpoint in words what they are worrying about, which is why visuals on the resources help.
Downloading “Going to School Worry Triggers” from behappyresources.co.uk (£2.49 a month) can help children become more aware of their thoughts, worries and triggers.
CHAT – DON’T CHASTISE: Young children don’t have the vocabulary to communicate how they feel – which brings on those angry outbursts.
But punishing tantrums instead of exploring what led to them will push children to cover up their emotions even more.
Create an open environment in the home and take time to communicate daily.
Experts say spending just five minutes a day with our kids with no screens or distractions can help them open up.
ASK THE EXPERTS: If your child’s actions or the way they are feeling is getting in the way of their daily lives and making home life very difficult, contact your GP or a health professional.
Be Happy Resources are not a replacement for professional support, but work alongside it.
LOOK AFTER YOU: Parents and caregivers should take steps to make sure they are winding down, taking care of themselves, and of course seeking support if they too are affected by their child’s worries.
Parents need to remember that their mental health is important too.