Youth mental health, particularly among young teenage girls, has been in the media recently as reports and statistics surrounding the rates of self-harm and rate of delay in treatment for mental health issues have emerged.
Mental health has been gaining an increasing profile as a topic of importance as schools, health care systems, parents, communities, and politicians are all calling for higher degree of support, care, and responsive treatment. While some of the issue lies with understaffed health systems which are under enormous pressure, other contributing factors can be found closer to home.
Social media has been linked by some researchers to low self-esteem and mental health problems. This may or may not be as a result of comparing one’s so-called “behind the scenes” reality with the highly polished, filtered, and hashtagged “highlight reel” of social media pages.
It is important to recognise that while recent media attention may have centred around adolescent females, the truth of the matter is that issues with mental health can affect any one of us. Sometimes it is genetic, sometimes it is triggered by a stressful, traumatic, or otherwise distressing event, sometimes it can feel like a steamroller coming at you out of nowhere. The important thing is to know what to do when you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue, and to do that you need to understand what a mental health issue even is. So, what do I mean by “mental health issue”?
Well, “mental health” technically refers to psychological health and wellbeing whereas “mental illness” refers to psychosocial unwellness and reduction in wellbeing. Common mental illnesses are depression and anxiety which can clinically be characterised by a level of impact (by it mild, moderate, or severe) on one’s personal, interpersonal, occupational/educational, and general function and life. For students in the UK, the pressure to perform and the volume of examinations and high stakes assessment can serve as stressors and potential risk factors.
This cohort of young people are usually in the thick of friendship and relationship formation and maintenance, discovery of personal identity, identification of similarity and difference among social peers (including identification with other cultures, religions, and among the LGBTIQ community), experimentation with risk-taking behaviours and mood-altering substances, employment, familial issues, and a wicked cocktail of hormonal, physical, emotional, and psychological changes to boot.
It is estimated that the brain is not fully formed and settled in its development until one’s mid-twenties. That means that young people are experiencing a raft of changes internally and externally all while their brain is still adapting and learning. Is it any wonder then that our young may struggle to balance school, friends, work, family, social media, physical health, emotional wellbeing, and mental healthiness among the various of other demands on their resources, time, and energy?
We need to support each other, and particularly our young people who can be even more vulnerable to developing issues with their mental health. So, check in. Really ask if they are OK. If you notice something that concerns you, be brave and bring it up gently and considerately. Let them know that there is great strength in asking for help. Make sure they know that there is nothing wrong with seeking out a therapist for guidance. Tell them it is OK to not be OK (while making sure that they have support). Sometimes all it takes is just being there and listening.
So, take your eyes and ears forward and be open. That sometimes is the greatest but simplest gift we can give.
• In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at Befrienders.