The Kusnacht Practice Podcast #016 Interview with Melissa Nobile, psychologist MSc, on the effects of the pandemic on young people’s mental health

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“It’s not the pandemic in itself that has a direct causal link to the increase in mental health problems, but the pandemic has changed our day to day life.” – Melissa Nobile, psychologist MSc.

A new survey released by UK children’s charity the NSPCC has revealed a troubling increase in mental health concerns in young people, with counselling sessions for eating and body image disorders skyrocketing.

In the latest podcast from The Kusnacht Practice, we are talking with Melissa Nobile – psychologist MSc – about the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of young people.

Melissa discusses the ‘mediating factors’ that have led to the development of mental health issues, and the value of communication and creativity in providing a solution.

She addresses the prevalence and severity of eating and body image disorders, underlining the importance of early intervention. As well as the significance of the NSPCC’s Childline service ‘Nobody is Normal’ campaign and the positive message it conveys.

Presenter: Hello, we’re here today with Melissa Nobile. She’s the Psychologist, Operations Coordinator and Project Manager here at The Kusnacht Practice. Good morning.

Melissa Nobile: Good morning.

Presenter: Melissa, we’re here today because I have a few questions regarding the new NSPCC survey on the effects of the pandemic on young people’s mental health.

Deep diving into this, it comes out that basically the rising stress levels have taken a toll on the mental and emotional health of young people since the first coronavirus lockdown was imposed in March. The UK children’s charity, NSPCC, was warned that calls to the charity’s Childline service had reached nearly 43,000 between March and October, with mental health worries making up more than a third of all its counselling sessions, new figures showed. These numbers are proof of the huge strain on the mental health of the world’s youth, aren’t they?

MN: Well, what these numbers indicate is that there seems to be a correlation between the evolution of the pandemic and a number of, in this case, phone calls to this children’s charity. So what I’m tempted to say is that it’s not the pandemic in itself that has a direct causal link to the increase in mental health problems, but the pandemic has changed our day to day life.

And it’s probably through these, what we call mediating factors, that we will see an increase in mental health difficulties. Among these mediating factors are going to be, maybe for these youth, having a harder time spending time with their friends, because in certain countries there’re limitations on the number of people that can be in a group.

Leisure being cancelled in Switzerland, in some places there’s no more possibility to practice their hobbies. And maybe a feeling of lack of control. We know especially for teenagers that it’s an age where they try to take control of their environment and they need to feel that. And in a pandemic, a lot can feel completely out of control, which can be challenging for them.

An increase in screen time, which sometimes can have great benefits but can also be complicated for some. Distress of the news, fear of a loved one getting sick, or a group of different mediating factors.

PR: The NSPCC said its counsellors had heard from children who were feeling isolated, anxious and insecure after being cut off from their usual social support networks. How can families help to replicate those conventional networks to support their loved ones?

MN: I think the first step would actually be for families, and parents especially, to accept that they can’t exactly replicate normal life. And maybe that can take away some pressure to, for the first step, to think okay, we can’t replicate a normal day to day life, we can only try our best to make this phase okay and bearable for our child.

And then, the next step would be, if possible, to have an open conversation with the children to understand their world and to the way the child is thinking. Ask them questions: ‘What is it that’s the most difficult for you? Is there something for you that’s particularly worrying?’

Children can be quite good at actually just saying what’s on their mind, and based on their responses you can get creative. It can be deciding, ‘OK, let’s install that twice a week we have a virtual dinner with friends, board games as a family, building a board game as a family’.

Deciding that this is an opportunity to do things we don’t usually take the time to do, such as exploring a different part of nature in the countryside of wherever you live, etc.

So I think a combination of all these things can help and getting creative could be the key to a lot of solutions. Again, bearing in mind that you can only do your best in a time that is going to be stressful, difficult and complicated for a lot of people.

PR: I can see how lockdown is actually adding to that challenge. Some children have developed eating disorders, such as binge eating and bulimia, for the first time, while others with existing eating disorders have reported worse symptoms, aggravation, and have relapsed. And the charity has found this fairly consistently.

Are these kinds of reactions common in such circumstances? And what can individuals and families do to help sufferers from relapsing?

MN: Yes, it’s not surprising for me. And it’s pretty well known in research, and amongst clinicians, that when someone is going through a stressful time, or a challenging time, the more likely they are to relapse or to have heightened symptoms.

That’s because when you’re going through a certain intensity of stress or isolation, which is a form of stress – you can picture it a bit like a jug. So if it’s a jug of water and we all have different cracks, which are our vulnerabilities, and in certain times these cracks are just going to be revealed more than other times, including if the water is just overflowing because a lot is going on.

So not surprising, you need a lot of resources to go through these kinds of times. And I can give you more of a generic answer on what families can do because the specific answer will depend on the situation. But again, similar to my last answer, it would be to talk to your child, understand what’s going on for them as much as you can. And then depending on that, you’ll be able to maybe make a decision as a parent that feels right for you. And I would advise to seek professional help if you see that your child is suffering.

PR: Figures are revealing that the counselling sessions for eating and body image disorders have risen by 32% after the March lockdown. This is a very sharp leap. In your opinion, what can be done to try and help such feelings by these young people who fear they are developing these disorders?

MN: Well, there’s a lot of different reasons why someone may be on the path to developing an eating disorder or body image problematics. If you’re in a place where you’re afraid of the direction it’s taking you, that is exactly when I would recommend seeking professional help. Especially for eating disorders, where we know that the earlier we intervene the best likelihood we will have of reaching a full recovery.

So I’d encourage seeking help. During the pandemic there’re online services, there’s a lot of different options for that. I touched briefly on that in a previous podcast; it is quite difficult to treat an eating disorder, in the early stages, alone.

PR: Indeed, I would invite our listeners and audience to actually refer to the previous podcast for that specific chapter. The charity has now launched a ‘Nobody is Normal’ campaign encouraging children to speak out and get help to discuss their anxiety and distress. How relevant is this ‘Nobody is Normal’ message, in your opinion? Is that an important and pertinent phrase for young people to remember?

MN: Yes. I think the motto is interesting because it’s a very human fear to be marginalised, or to be afraid of being abnormal. Humans, we like to fit in, and being marginalised is often perceived as a threat. And from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense when we have to belong to a certain group to ensure our survival. And it has stayed in our way of thinking, amongst lots of other factors, in our modern society.

And then, added to that, is adolescence. During the process of adolescence, it’s an age group where being different is even more threatening than any other age. Teenagers have to go through different developmental tasks, one of them is building their identity and differentiating from the family.

And so for that, they’re going to lean a lot more from a peer group. And that’s why you’ll see in high school, for example, teenagers all wearing the same shoes or listening to the same music etc, because they need to fit in.

So all that being said, this motto ‘Nobody is Normal’ can be a way to help pass a message that the perfect human doesn’t exist, and that the differences are not only acceptable, but it’s normal to not be completely normal, or whatever that ideal can look like. And that others too, can diverge on these points. So I think it’s a nice motto that they found to begin to get that message through.

PR: Thank you. We were here today with Melissa Nobile, Psychologist, Operations Coordinator and Project Manager here at The Kusnacht Practice. Thank you very much Melissa.

MN: Thank you for having me.