October 2021

Breaking the stigma on mental health & how play can help families to thrive

Stigmas around mental health persist, particularly for women and children. Play can boost wellbeing, but systems need to support families and children to have the best start in life

Gemma Tumelty

My own mental health story

When I was pregnant with my first child, I became mentally unwell. I was struggling with my changing body, hormonal changes and the constant pain experienced by a trapped nerve in my ribs. I was fearful about losing my identity and the impact on my career and my return to work. My midwife referred me to specialist support services in the health system and to a local charity, my doctor was supportive, and I had access to free at the point of use healthcare and free medication due to pregnancy exemptions. The care was excellent, and I was supported through my pregnancy both by the system and by those around me.

I am telling you this because maybe today of all days those of us who can, should be honest and help to break the stigma surrounding mental health. Because I was lucky to have a free health care system, postpartum care and parental leave legislation in place that supported me and my baby in a holistic way. And because this is not the case for millions and millions of women around the world. The impact on them and their babies’ health and development can have devastating consequences, not only for them as individuals, but for society as a whole.

 

The mental health crisis

Parents everywhere have been under increased pressure because of the COVID-19 pandemic: from school and day- care closures, job losses, reduced support services, squeezed family finances to bereavements and dealing with isolation from loved ones. All this has had a devastating impact on mental health and family stability and safety. But even before the pandemic too many parents and caregivers and far too many children experienced toxic stress and poor mental health. Poverty, limited access to health care, a lack of social support, poor housing, war, unemployment and addiction are only a few examples of barriers, challenges and situations that prevent an environment where everyone can thrive.

On this World Mental Health Day, we are facing a huge challenge and the cost of inaction is great – in terms of the toll it takes on lives, on families, on child development and wellbeing and on the communities they live in.

The best start in life and the benefits of play

At the LEGO Foundation we recognise that mental health is of huge importance to ensuring every parent and caregiver and their baby get the best possible start. This means strengthening the systems that support families so they can build a long-lasting bond through playful interactions.

We have seen that where parents are supported in their communities to be responsive and playful parents, children thrive in school and life. We believe all parents should have access to this type of support – the benefits to the individual child, their families and society are enormous.

Parenting is crucial to laying strong bases for children’s mental health and their future wellbeing, but not all parents have sufficient support for their own mental wellbeing that can allow them to give the type of nurturing care and playful interactions that their babies need to thrive.

Stress and anxiety can affect how responsive parents and caregivers are to the needs of their children. Many programmes aim to support parents and caregivers with their own mental health through playful activities with their children. Simply, because positive relationships can be supported in quality play experiences and stress levels can be lowered. Growing evidence also suggests that learning through play can uniquely support children in developing the skills they need to cope with stress and anxiety during everyday as well as adverse circumstances.

Breaking the stigma and supporting all parents, everywhere

To end where I began, let’s keep talking and telling our stories. Let’s use days like World Mental Health Day to start and change conversations and to break the stigmas surrounding mental health, particularly for women and children. Let’s use our voices to break through systemic silence and to work towards ensuring that all parents and caregivers have the support and access to the services that they need to nurture and care for themselves and their children.

And lastly, take a moment for yourselves today, and as often as you can. It’s hard work caring for little ones and balancing the rest of life’s demands and challenges. When you do not care for yourself, and are feeling frazzled, it makes it tougher to be the responsive and sensitive parent that you want to be.

Some resources

UNICEF Parenting Hub
COVID Parenting
Father holding his smiling baby daughter into the camera

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