The stats are shocking. Did you know half of all mental illness starts by the age of 14? And 75% by the age of 18? Alarming, isn’t it?
Today, Wednesday 10 October, is World Mental Health day. Held every year, it’s a day for global mental health education and awareness – this year’s theme is ‘young people and mental health in a changing world’.
Mental wellbeing in young people is something I’ve become increasingly aware of. With 2 young children, I’m seeing first-hand the pressures they’re experiencing and their worries. When I talk to other parents, we’re all having similar experiences – like the kind of response you get when you ask “How was your day at school?”. Often the answer is “OK” or a bit of a grunt – I’m sure those of you who are parents can relate to this! But was their day really OK? Are they hiding things they don’t want to share?
I’ve discovered sometimes there are hidden emotions or concerns bubbling under the surface that come out with the right questions or when things become a bit too much. Worries like getting homework done on time, popularity in friendship groups and on social media, performing well in tests and exams, pursuing extra-curricular activities – and of course trying to fit in some fun!
The early years of adulthood are a time of huge change – it might be starting a new school, moving on to university, exam pressures, changes in family situations. Put hormonal fluctuations on top of that and you could have the perfect recipe for emotional turmoil.
So, is our changing world contributing to young people’s stress? I think so, and I think a lot of that is down to social media. These days it’s unusual to see a young person without some sort of digital device, tapping away on Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook. Technology can bring great benefits, but there’s a horrible flip side too – all too often, we hear tragic tales of cyberbullying and peer pressure.
My daughter’s found she likes to step away from social media from time to time – and I’m really proud of her for doing that. She’s seen how social media can create the perception that everyone else’s life appears wonderful – fabulous holidays, great parties, perfect hair and make-up. Thankfully she’s learnt what you see on social media often isn’t the full picture, everyone else’s lives are not as perfect as they try to paint. Knowing this takes the pressure off and brings her focus back to the real world.
Fortunately I had the opportunity to attend a mental health first aider course earlier this year – it was brilliant, extremely enlightening. The things I learnt were very thought-provoking and one in particular I took away is so simple. It’s just talking.
Keeping communications lines open and reassuring people that it’s OK to talk, whatever the subject, and that you want to listen – without judging – can make a real difference. Sometimes I’ve found conversations quite hard, even uncomfortable – and repeated. But I’ve seen good outcomes, so I don’t underestimate their value. If a simple conversation, even if it is difficult, can help, it’s got to be worth it.
The age at which mental illness starts is scary, but maybe when you consider that primary school children are experiencing pressures to conform or achieve certain standards and they’re also seeing content, in magazines or online that portrays success or happiness in unrealistic ways, perhaps it’s not so surprising. I’ve heard stories of girls at primary school saying they’re fat, even that they’re going to stop eating. And the fact they’re experiencing these things when they’re simply too young to deal with them is just awful.
It’s encouraging to see more emphasis being put on both awareness and support in schools – the more that can be done, the better. Opening up ways to talk and seek help are vital. But what can you and I do? Keep an eye out for signs of mental illness – this can include depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm.
Young people can become withdrawn, feel sad, show a lack of interest in activities they normally enjoy, lose their appetite, have a sense of hopelessness or want more attention and reassurance. Equipping people – young and old – with life skills helps them become more resilient and therefore able to cope better with things life throws at them; these include:
Talking is often the first step towards help – it could be with a parent, teacher or school nurse or organisations such as ChildLine or Samaritans. Young people’s negative feelings usually pass but if they’re upset for a long time or if their feelings stop them getting on with their lives, it’s a good idea to seek help.
What I’ve also come to realise is that those supporting people with mental health issues also need support. I’ve seen how those trying to help others can also experience low moods and behavioural changes. It’s so important to make sure the helpers seek and receive help themselves too.
So some final thoughts… look after your young people, look after yourself too. Keep an eye on everyone around you – young and old – and don’t be afraid to speak out if you or those around you need support. It’s there if you want it.