Mental health – the rise in depression & anxiety of our teenagers & how can we help them cope

Mental health – the rise in depression & anxiety of our teenagers & how can we help them cope

I welcome the latest high profile intervention by Prince Harry, Wills and Kate to urge people to talk openly about mental health, but we need to do more than talk if we’re going to get to the root of the matter, that said, talking is always a good place to start.

Mental health has been going up everyone’s radar for quite some time now, the last coalition government put more money into mental health and sought to give mental health parity with physical health, and the current government continues along that path. But it seems we are only scratching the surface, discovering more instances where support is needed and finding more vulnerabilities being presented in this age of rapid technology and extreme communication.

I’ve been visiting schools for close on 2 decades, but of late when visiting schools issues of mental health are being raised with me. In fact when I met with the chief executive of a large group of girls schools we spent our entire time together talking about it. She now has a full-time nurse and counsellor in each of her schools to deal with the mental stresses of being a teenager in 2016.

I say ‘stresses’ for I have come to believe the age we live in is putting increased pressure on the mind and having a significant impact on people’s mental state. Whereas our physical form has adapted over thousands of years to cope with physical demands of life, the sudden onset and rapid advancement of technology has been so fast that the human brain has not managed to adapt and keep up with the pace of change, so much so our mental circuitry is facing extreme pressure and overloading, producing problems we’ve never had to face before, problems this generation will need to find the solutions to.

Whilst I was with the school chief executive she listed a whole host of issues pupils now had to contend with, and while some were no different to when I was growing up – mean kids in class praying on other kids’ vulnerabilities based on teenage insecurities; how you look, who did or didn’t want to date you; and who was or wasn’t your friend (basically bullying) – what had changed was the size, scope, repetition and scale of the bullying.

These attacks – whether verbal, written, videoed, photographed, in the age of Twitter and Facebook – are significantly magnified, reaching a larger audience and hang around on the web forever for all to see. These bullies or online abusers now have the ability to attack their targets, any time of the day by phone or Facebook allowing the victim no respite. And the levels of attack can be considerably more brutal too – ridicule, intimidation and humiliation captured on video then shared online or plain ugly calls for a pupil to commit suicide can be posted with a constant bombardment of suggestions on how to do it.

‘Sticks and stones’ as my dad used to say is no longer a strong enough mantra to cope with this mental abuse; it’s like using a bow and arrow when your enemy has a rifle.

During teenage years the individual has so many changes to contend with – the obvious physical and hormonal ones as a person moves from childhood to adulthood whilst at the same time undergoing significant brain developmental processes too – who knows what impacts such intense abuse could be having at this vital stage of transformation.

And it’s not just abuse teenagers have to contend with, it’s the everyday images of perceived perfection, false expectation, superstar lifestyles that knock confidence and suggest daily they are underachieving or underperforming just at a time when they are finding themselves, what they are good at and what they hope to be.

As I tour around the country meeting pupils, I see only too clearly how much work needs to be done on building up resilience. From resilience will grow confidence, and these are the 2 main shields needed to counter this external ‘noise’ and abuse.

Resilience development is what’s needed to cope with 21st Century living. That means trying and failing in a safe space; conquering fears from a young age; sports and outdoor pursuits, drama and speaking in public; finding your own weaknesses and overcoming them. But when we live in an age where everyone wants safety and security we don’t ever get to put ourselves in positions where we probe at our weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and as a consequence we push our ability to develop resilience further away.

Risk taking, physical and mental, is essential to build up our inner strength, and in an age when we need resilience, especially mental resilience the most, we’re also living in an age where we have removed risk taking as much as we can from our daily lives. Could it be in keeping ourselves so safe and from harms way, that we have removed our ways to build resilience, weakening ourselves the most.

The issues I’ve touched on are merely the tip of the iceberg of the mental pressures and stresses our teenagers are living with and through. I don’t pretend for an instant that developing mental resilience will prevent every mental illness, but what it may well do is prevent mental stresses leading to unnecessary illnesses and the rise of mental issues on a scale we have not seen before.

Here are the latest statistics
– Rates of depression and anxiety for teenagers has increased by 70% in the last 25 years
– In the past 3 years eating disorders have doubled
– in the 2016 survey for Parent Zone – 93% of teachers reported an increase in the rate of mental illness of children and teenagers

Reading these statistics, we should, at the very least, be teaching our young people how to cope with the pressures of an advanced technological age, for whilst we have exposed them to it, meaning they are better placed than their elders at using computers, I fear we have failed them by not developing them mentally to cope with it too.

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