Mental Illness Awareness Week is Oct. 1-7, 2017. Though often overlooked due to entrenched stigmas, awareness of childhood mental illness is on the rise. Lately, celebrities like Academy Award winner Emma Stone, Olympian Michael Phelps, and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge are speaking out to rise awareness on the issue.


And for good reason. According to the Child Mind Institute, out of the 74.5 million children in the United States, an estimated 17.1 million have or have had a mental health disorder — more than the number of children with cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined.


High-profile influencers are helping eradicate stigma by raising awareness and showing struggling children there is a brighter future ahead. But how can everyday parents and caregivers build stepping stones to childhood mental health? By providing children with an environment that demonstrates love, compassion, trust, and understanding.


Here are a few ways parents and caregivers can lay the foundation for confidence and future mental wellbeing.

Foster Safety and Support

Comfortable, secure spaces make children feel at ease trying new things, accepting fun challenges, and focusing on what’s important: being a kid.

  • Arrange your space wisely. The way you organize your child care space can make a difference in how children behave. Pay attention to where behavior problems occur. Set up shelves and other furniture to divide the room into separate learning and play areas. This will help children find activities more easily.
  • Explain and model how to carefully handle books, toys, and other materials. Even very young children can learn to treasure books, to turn the pages gently, to carry them carefully, and to read them in special places. Repeat this message and give children plenty of opportunities to practice.


Build Positive Relationships

Staff and parents who are caring and responsive role models, and clear and open communicators, help children create warm and trusting relationships.

  • Provide opportunities for children to play together, solve conflicts in productive ways, and participate in group activities. Examples include gardening, cooking (under proper adult supervision, of course!) and open-ended pretend play.
  • ​​Utilize activities that allow multiple groups to play at the same time, including open-ended activities like unit blocks, magna-tiles, LEGO bricks, play dough, and sensory tubs.
  • Encourage curiosity of reading and math through supportive activities and interactions, like lemonade stands or pretend-play restaurants (including notebooks to write out orders, a cash register to pay, etc.).


Enhance Accessibility And Inclusion

Welcoming, convenient spaces allow children of all abilities, cultures, and backgrounds feel at home and feel like a valued part of our community.

  • Employ activities that encourage sensory experiences for children with varied needs. Some great examples include water tables (increase interest by adding food coloring or soap), sand boxes (small sifters, cups, funnels, and colorful rocks can add to the learning), office supplies (shredded paper, packing peanuts, or colored paper clips), and classroom/household items (large beads and buttons, cotton balls, or kitchen utensils are items that children can explore).
  • Reflect cultural and individual differences without promoting stereotypes. Children of all ages and capabilities enjoy music, so start by teaching songs and dances from different nations of the world. Children will see that all people like to sing and dance, but every group has its own special ways of doing it. Talk with the children about how different music sounds: loud, soft, fast, or slow. Listen for the different instruments.

Making a child feel safe, loved, and trusted is great way in invest in his/her long-term mental health — during Mental Illness Awareness Week and all year round.