Mental Health

Speech, language and communication and mental health: a complex relationship

Did you know half of all mental health problems manifest themselves by the age of 14? That’s a shocking reality. Consequently, when Theresa May recently announced her Government plans to “roll out mental health support to every school in the country” the news was widely welcomed – after all, with one in ten children and young people struggling with mental health issues, the statistics are worrying. 

The fact that support and training in mental health is planned in schools is a positive move. However, a crucial component in improving support for mental health is an understanding of all the factors that can be involved; including speech, language and communication skills, which 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 young people is that it is harder for them to access the talk-based support that is often available. Many interventions, support or recommended therapeutic techniques such as cognitive behavioural 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 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 more difficult to solve problems or to understand the subtle social rules of interaction. As a result 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 also 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 mental health 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.

We’re pleased to see the plans to support the mental health of children and young people are in full swing – our hope is that those who take a lead in this work are aware of all factors that play a part and how to support those who are struggling.