Young people and mental health in a changing world - feelya

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On World Mental Health Day (10th October) we explore why so many young people – particularly young women and girls – are presenting with serious mental health problems such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression.

Building sandcastles on the beach, playing football in the garden, and giggling with friends at a birthday party. 

These are the kind of childhood memories that people treasure, and revisit throughout their lives. 

Childhood is characterised as a happy, carefree time, unburdened by the tedious stresses of adulthood, such as 9-5 jobs and paying bills.

Yet how many children today really are carefree? Evidence suggests that young people today are more stressed out than ever, and that many are suffering serious mental health problems.

Between 2011 and 2014 there was a 68 per cent increase in the number of 13-16 year olds who presented in hospital with evidence of self-harm.

Ask any adult over the age of 35 and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who remembers a friend or relative self-harming. Today you would struggle to find a UK teenager who does not know of a schoolmate, or friend who has done this.

Cutting yourself seems an extreme act and a sign of deep distress, unhappiness or anxiety. It is deeply disturbing to see the wounds that result. Yet some teenagers do it repeatedly and some say they feel it relives the emotional pain they are feeling. 

So what would drive children to take such extreme measures? And why are so many young people – particularly young women and girls – presenting with serious mental health problems such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression? 

The answers are complex. But certainly teenagers’ lives are more complicated and scrutinised than ever before.  

Social media exposes young people to a myriad of pressures and influences – and not all of them are benign. 

Teenagers’ brains are constantly whirring – when they are not asleep! With a mobile phone in your pocket, there is little time for ‘switching off’ or self-reflection.

At school, many children are under extraordinary pressure to achieve. Some children, not tall enough to go on a fairground roller coaster, are being told by schools that they need do hours of homework each night. 

The pressure for jobs and the high marks required to get into a good school, six form or university means the focus is not on having fun, but achievement.  And not just academic success – for some children, packing their CV with extra-curricular achievements starts at six, and occupies evenings, weekends and holidays. 

Few adults today remember their parents getting closely involved in their schoolwork.

Today some parents are involved in every school project, survey every test result and oversee homework. Their devotion is entirely well meaning. But does this level of scrutiny and pressure damage some children? 

Many teenagers reaching university find themselves without the resilience to cope alone, and are anxious and unable to deal with any criticism of their academic work. 

Not just that, but they feel under tremendous pressure to succeed. With competition for jobs so fierce, they feel there is little room for slack. 

For two loving parents in London, their children were the focus of their lives and they worked hard to ensure they had the best of everything. They hired tutors to ensure their girls made it into the best private schools, ferried them to and from piano and violin lessons, swimming practices and ballet. 

Every night they helped them complete their homework or prepare for tests.  The good marks they achieved were paramount, and a B was considered a failure. Their children, with their help and support, would be the best they could be. 

The parents also made sure their diet was healthy, varied and nutritious. They bought them gym memberships so the teenage girls would look as well as be their best.

What they did not realise – but what their friends could see staring them in the face – was that their A* children were not only unhappy but stressed out and exhausted. They were terrified of letting their high-achieving parents down. They would have loved to sit eating biscuits in front of the TV occasionally, rather than attending ‘improving’ after school activities.  

So it came as no surprise to them when, at 15, the oldest girl developed an extreme eating disorder and depression, flunked important exams and lost a coveted place at Oxford. It was only after the girl revealed to a therapist how unhappy she was that her devoted parents realised that their expectations were creating unhappy children.

They took their foot off the accelerator, the girl breathed a sigh of relief and made a complete recovery. 

We all want the best for our children. But should we ask ourselves if they are being put under too much pressure, and if our expectations are always sensible?  

Of course there are many external pressures on children that parents can do little to control. Social media is an exciting tool for young people to communicate. It exposes young people to more social influences than ever before but not all of them are benign.

People can be crueller in the virtual world than face to face and many young people have found themselves at the receiving end of bullying, hurtful comments, or in a conversation they felt uncomfortable about. 

Post a picture of yourself online and you could attract is a stream of abusive comments. Make an ‘uncool’ comment and you could face a tirade. 

Hurtful comments are bad enough for anyone, but for children and teenagers, just establishing their own identity, their sense of self worth and self knowledge, being cut down – even in jest – can be psychologically very damaging.

Poor body image, particularly among girls, is a serious concern that can have a life-long impact on self-esteem. It is hardly surprising so many young people feel unhappy with their appearance. They are constantly fed idealised and touched-up images of models, actors and other ‘beautiful people’ that set an unrealistic standard of how they should look – and how thin they should be. 

 Eating disorders among young girls – from bulimia to anorexia – are on the increase and can be a symptom of a deep feeling of inadequacy and unhappiness. 

Many people who struggle with poor mental health in adulthood find the origins in childhood. 

The positive news is that more and more young people are seeking help for mental health problems, and are more open about them. 

And poor mental health – and its causes – can be successfully addressed. 

Children deserve to grow up feeling good about themselves and positive about the future. Equipped with resilience and self-belief they can function as happy, successful adults. 

Like everyone, they need support, and the reassurance that it is okay to fail sometimes. Children will feel better about themselves, when they realise that nobody is perfect. 

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