Helping kids deal with anxiety

September 17th, 2021 8:00 PM

By Emma Connolly

Katie is also set to visit primary schools to provide teachers with resources for supporting children with worries.

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A NEW book designed to help youngsters struggling with anxiety of different kinds has hit shelves in time for their return to school.

Katie O’Donoghue is the author and illustrator of The Little Squirrel Who Worried, just published by Gill Books.

Through the gentle tale of Little Squirrel, it teaches coping skills and CBT techniques to support children with their worries and anxiety.

Katie has a Masters in Art Psychotherapy, and is currently working as assistant manager and Art Psychotherapist in a cancer support centre in Tralee while also completing a PhD in Psychological Wellbeing and Heritage, at University College London.

It was while she was living outside of London last year and working for Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services, NHS UK, that she got the idea for her book, aimed at those age four and upwards.

‘It was mid-October last year, missing home, family and friends, that I began to write and illustrate the story. As an art psychotherapist the process of creativity is incredibly close to my heart, and I started illustrating the characters (all Irish woodland creatures) as a way to feel connected to home,’ she said.

At the same time she was seeing referrals for young people for general anxiety, social anxiety, health anxiety and low mood, with spikes for general, health and social anxiety at times of reopenings (after lockdowns) and the return to school.

The story centres on the little squirrel who needs to gather nuts for the winter but he’s too worried to leave his cosy nest. Luckily he discovers he has lots of friends in the forest. In a difficult year for many, through the story of little squirrel and his adventures in the forest, readers young and old come to learn coping techniques and to realise that, although everyone feels worried sometimes, we don’t have to face those worries alone.

‘I really enjoyed the whole process and worked on the stories and illustrations from beginning to end every evening, and completed it in under three weeks!’

What happened next proved she had created something meaningful.

‘One Thursday evening I was sending off the manuscript to my father in Ireland via email. After hitting send I checked the sent box and realised I had sent it to the wrong email address. Initially I was a bit worried about who would receive the book but it was only for my own enjoyment so there was no need to worry. To my surprise there in my inbox the next morning was an email which read:

‘Hi Katie, I think you sent this to the wrong e-mail address. However, I couldn’t resist reading the attachment to my six-year-old son. He suffers from anxiety and we have read all the books and work with a therapist to address it.  I have to say, it was just a beautiful piece and a nice way of refreshing him on all the skill sets he’s learned to address his worry.  He reenacted the badger’s instructions to get cozy and breathe. His final words as he was falling asleep tonight were “That’s a really good bedtime story” – I’ve never heard him say that ever.  When you get it published, please reach out to me so I can buy a dozen copies.

All my best and thanks for making the world better,

Brian O’Donoghue (Chicago)’

Katie said the email was the push needed to submit the book to publishers for review.  Having sent the manuscript to a handful of Irish publishers at the end of October, in mid-December she received a call from the Director of Gill Books, Nicki Howard, who absolutely loved it.

Nicki said she was ‘so taken by this story when she first read it: ‘I thought that it could become a lovely gentle bedtime book for young children. But it also made me think of my own mother who has been cocooning for over a year now and has needed a little coaxing to come out as lockdown comes to an end. I hope readers young and old will take comfort in Little Squirrel’s story and maybe even send it to someone in their life who’s a little wary of coming out of their nest too.’

Katie is from Co Kerry, and is living outside of Killarney, in Beaufort, with her husband Gerald McEnery.

‘We moved back to Ireland at the end of April 2021. I moved back for family health reasons but also because  personally Covid really highlighted the things in life that are truly important, and for me that is family. Both my husband and I have all our family in Ireland and it was truly a hard year being separated from them all. When we were offered jobs back in Kerry we jumped at the chance.’

An OECD report found that the uncertainties and impacts of Covid-19 affected young people more than others and that they were 30% to 80% more likely to report symptoms of depression or anxiety than adults

‘I am still in contact with the CAMHS in the UK and from speaking with colleagues and hearing about the ongoing research into the impact of Covid on young people’s mental health I do believe there is concern for the potential long-term impact on young people’s mental wellbeing,’ said Katie. In the coming weeks she is planning to visit national schools in Munster to facilitate therapeutic creative workshops to provide teachers and parents with further resources for supporting their children with worries and anxieties. If West Cork schools are interested, she’d be happy to hear from them.

‘It has been a real joy to receive such lovely messages and pictures of children enjoying the story of Little Squirrel and hearing how it has helped them.

‘I do have an outline of a story in mind for a possible book two but we shall have to wait and see…’

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