What is Mental Health and Why is it Important?

Mental health is an important aspect of our wellbeing that impacts the way we face stressors, interact with others, and feel about the world around us. Our cognitive and social well-being, which are supported by our emotional and psychological health, have a lot of power to determine the way we think and act, and can be connected to behavior and physical health, too.

In children and youth, mental health challenges can be tough to identify and confront, but there are factors to look out for as a caregiver and avenues to seek support. Some warning signs of mental health challenges in children may be outbursts or extreme irritability, drastic changes in mood, behavior, or personality, and changes in social or academic engagement. Building awareness and engaging with resources can help support children and youth.

Within Pierce County, statistics in poor mental health in a 2018 survey of 10th graders recognized that depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation were on the rise. The impact of COVID-19 is significant, too. A behavioral health officer in Pierce County noted that many children and youth within Pierce County were struggling with low mental health before the pandemic, with the pandemic exacerbating challenges. In response to this, schools and community programs are adapting to support the mental health of the children and youth in their care. One big way is through Tacoma Whole Child partnerships, which reinforce support with social and emotional learning (SEL) pillars at school, at home, and in the community for children and youth in Pierce county.

Schools and communities highlight expanded learning opportunity (ELO) programs and SEL-inspired changes in education because they prepare children and youth with skills to understand themselves and others. Centering play and SEL are strategies that schools and communities use to support mental health and improve learning in preschool through 12th grade education, and can be utilized at home too. 

Let’s explore the benefits of play and SEL on mental health and how you can incorporate their learnings at home.

Mental Health and Play

One way to support mental health for children of all ages and youth is to engage in play. Play is not only fun and good for different types of development, but it also has physical and mental benefits. When we play, we learn about ourselves and others, which can help us build a sense of identity useful in social aspects of our lives.

Some of the benefits of play on mental health for children include reducing stress, helping process big emotions, and strengthening confidence in themselves and their abilities. Play can be a method of boosting mental health through building healthy habits of personal and social development.

Mental Health and SEL

Another way to support the mental health of the children and youth in your life is with the encouragement of social and emotional learning (SEL). SEL promotes environments and learnings that act as protective factors against mental health risks and challenges. 

SEL aims to strengthen skills like self-regulation and self-awareness, which can help in identifying and communicating thoughts and feelings, as well as problem-solving tied to big emotions. It also fosters spaces where children and youth feel safe to practice relationship skills and express their emotions while they discover ways to handle complex thoughts and feelings.

Mental Health-Focused Play and SEL At Home

There are so many ways to spark play at home while keeping mental health in mind. Creating a place for your little one to play freely is key, motivating unstructured, big-body, cooperative, and social play types. Artistic and creative outlets are also a part of play and its benefits!

You can also try practicing and modeling SEL at home to support your little one’s mental and emotional well-being. Some ways to do so are by taking care of yourself and displaying what self-care looks like, maintaining open dialogue and communication about thoughts and feelings, and empowering self-esteem. Enacting SEL teachings and skill-building at home starts with everyday behaviors and can be small changes that make a big difference!


Additional Resources

For general guidance, the National Institute of Mental Health has information about mental health for children and youth and offers guidance in seeking professional health as needed.

Within Pierce County, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Pierce County provides information and offers community events for supporting and discussing topics in mental health. Kids’ Mental Health Pierce County also offers multiple links, phone numbers, and information regarding general and specific identity-based resources for mental health.

We encourage families to engage in Greentrike programming that fits their needs! Play to Learn Pierce County offers weekly playgroups at community locations. The Children’s Museum of Tacoma and the Children’s Museum at JBLM host Low Sensory Hours each week for families with children experiencing special needs, and the Children’s Museum at JBLM offers an Exceptional Family Member Program Playgroup every Monday morning.