This week BBC Woman’s Hour did an excellent feature on mental health. I was particularly interested as this is an issue which has affected my family over the years, and has been especially difficult to deal with in recent months. The Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting was a contributor on the programme and was extremely eloquent. She said the single most important thing that can be done right now to stem the tide of rising mental health problems is to determine the causes of mental illness, rather than focus solely on treatment. I wholeheartedly agree with this, as in my personal situation I feel strongly that if causes had been dealt with years ago, my family would not be faced with what now seems an insurmountable problem. Of course, there are no easy answers, but there is a growing awareness of the benefits of mindfulness and the need for quiet, reflective periods in our everyday lives.

What has this got to do with a blog on writing for children, you might ask? Well, within the context of a discussion about the alarming increase of mental health problems in children today, Madeleine Bunting said one thing in particular which which got me thinking. She said we had lost the ideal of ‘the home as a haven in a heartless world’.

The phrase went round and round my head as I listened to the rest of the programme. I thought, what one thing have I always done, and still do, which creates a haven in my life? The answer came in a single word: read!

OK, so I am simplifying a huge problem here, and I do not mean to patronise. I know only too well that mental illness is a complex, shapeshifting beast, terrifying and nigh-on impossible to control without serious professional help. It is an illness, not simply a state of mind.

However, as the discussion moved on to talk about a ‘mindful’ approach to life – where we stop, take in the moment and focus on the here and now, rather than try to do ten things at once – I thought about my children’s lives in comparison with my own childhood. At any given moment at home, my son might be watching TV, texting a friend and looking something up on his laptop simultaneously. My daughter will be writing an essay, listening to music, downloading a film, snap chatting a friend and browsing her Instagram account.

What was I doing at their age? Reading. Writing. One thing at a time. OK, sometimes I was listening to music, too . . . 

As I listened to the programme I thought about the importance of instilling in children, as early as possible, the benefits to sitting quietly; of getting away from a screen, away from other people, away from the noise and distraction from a world which clamours at us to be better, more beautiful, more successful, richer, more powerful. Surely a great way to do this is to immerse yourself in a good story? In other words, to create a space for yourself where you learn to focus and empathise and lose yourself in your imagination.

Reading has always been a refuge for me. When I was a child, often the only way to feel better about life was to lose myself in a book, to live the lives of the characters I was reading about for a while, instead of living my own. Even now I can shut out most things by diving into a story.

Bunting has written up her argument in an article for The Guardian which contains much of what she said on Woman’s Hour: (Italics are my own.)

‘Home was supposed to be about responsibility, care without calculation, and privacy. It offered a refuge from the economic relationships of the outside world, where efficiency ruled; where people could be used as means not ends, exploited and instrumentalised. Crucially, the home was expected to provide children with protection from such transactional relationships until they reached maturity. The web has blown apart the fragile boundary between the two, making our homes into marketplaces where we are expected to trade ourselves.’

You have to be mindful to read. You cannot read if you are on Instagram and texting and checking out YouTube at the same time. You cannot read if you are thinking about anything else other than the words on the page and how they make you feel and think. Books expect nothing of us other than to engage our imaginations, and once we do that, we are free, soaring away from our anxieties.

I try to encourage my own children to read for fifteen minutes before going to sleep rather than remaining glued to laptops or mobile phones right up until lights out. I do this for a multitude of educational reasons, of course, but I also do this in the hope that I will get them into the habit of associating reading with relaxation, with a quiet time away from the stresses and strains of school, relationships and the outside world. I have no idea what life has in store for them, of course, and of course I know I cannot prevent the demons of mental illness from sticking their claws into my kids simply by encouraging them to read. But I hope that in learning to enjoy reading, my children will at least have found a place in their lives which is calm, quiet and a place they can be mindfully themselves.