The disturbing increase in mental health issues during the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted the government to launch a campaign that encourages anyone anxious or depressed to seek help.
Young people in the 18-24 age range are particularly affected.
Since March 2020, Santé publique France has regularly carried out surveys to find out how the pandemic is affecting the public.
This March, it found that almost a third (31%) of those they questioned said they were depressed or anxious, a significantly higher level than before the pandemic. Of those, 9% said they had suicidal tendencies in the past year, compared to 5% in 2017.
The campaign will use television, radio and internet videos to help people recognise symptoms, such as irritability, loss of energy, and sleep problems.
It will explain that these are normal reactions in a period with fear of Covid-19, economic difficulties and less social contact. It will urge those experiencing symptoms that are intense, long-lasting and interfere with normal life to talk to friends and family and/or get in touch with a health professional.
The Phare association has been working for 30 years to prevent suicide in young people by helping them with mental health problems.
Phare psychologist Géraldine Chanal said there is a clear and present problem among children and teenagers that cannot be ignored. “There are so many uncertainties and all the normal structures making up daily life are weakened. School is different, young people pick up on their parents’ worries and no one knows what the future will hold.
“It is always difficult to be young, and now that is intensified. Children and teenagers are also deprived of a normal social life, which is very hard for them.
“Many of those worst affected are extremely intelligent and sensitive and they feel guilty because they have what is regarded as a good life, with a stable family, good marks at school and friends – but even so, they feel hollow and sad and they do not understand why they are not happy.”
She said it is difficult for parents to know when to ask for help, but it is better to seek advice early: “If children change behaviour in a radical way for a long period of time, parents should consider there is a problem.
“It is difficult to judge because teenagers change anyway, but parents should have confidence in their ability to know their child and know if there is something fundamentally wrong.
“I always say it is better to worry too much than not enough. If parents do feel concern, it is better to take steps sooner rather than later. There are helplines where they can telephone, explain the situation and get advice.
“We have a helpline available for parents and for children: 01 43 46 00 62, open Monday to Friday, 10.00 to 17.00. Or you can send an email to email@example.com, with a reply promised in 48 hours.”
The new government campaign slogan is en parler, c’est déjà se soigner – “Talking is healing”.
Ms Chanal agrees: “We are convinced speaking about your mental state is the best way to start getting better.
“There is still a huge cultural taboo around the subject, and about making an appointment with a psychologist because people think it is a sign of weakness, that they should be able to find the solution themselves and that psychologists are for crazy people.
“I have been going into collèges [early secondary schools] for 15 years and I can see how important it is for young people to speak up.”
So what happens if you go to see a psychologist? “The person talks about their feelings and learns to put words to their emotions and worries.
“We accept their difficulties and give them a space to air them. It is difficult to find the right words. If you say you are not happy, you then need to be able to explain what that means so that it is not just an abstract concept.
“Psychologists do not just dwell on the negative, but ask the person to describe what they want out of life and find ways to achieve that.
“We all have inner resources we can use to bring us out of a bad situation, but we often need help doing that.”
She said it is difficult for everyone to cope with the current situation, and we all need to try to adapt to this new reality and find positive elements, rather than feel overwhelmed by it.
Her main advice is: do not wait until things get worse. If you are worried about your children, find help.
Phare has downloadable information documents at phare.pads.fr on a range of mental health issues, including anorexia, suicide attempts, addiction, and depression.
Ten free psychology sessions
Children and teenagers suffering mental health issues related to Covid-19 can benefit from 10 free psychology sessions from May. President Macron announced the measure during a visit to the psychiatric children and teenager unit at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Reims in April.
An internet platform has been set up with a list of partner psychologists.
The scheme is available for children between the ages of three and 17, with a GP’s prescription.
Some 40% of parents say their children show signs of mild to severe anxiety and stress, there has been an increase in suicides, eating syndromes and school phobia, and the number of young people seeking urgent admission to the CHU Reims has doubled in recent times.
It is hoped that access to consultations in the early stages of distress will prevent serious complications.