Keeping it in perspective: helping young people take charge of their well-being

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Young people today grow up in a high-pressure, hyper-mediated environment. New perceptions and expectations pile up and mutate at a dizzying pace.

At the same time, the traditional foundations of a well-adjusted transition into adulthood, such as job and financial security, a sure sense of identity and the promise of a well-cushioned old age, look increasingly shaky.

For many young people the start of the new school year is when all of those pressures come back into focus. A proactive approach to personal well-being is crucial in manoeuvring through the many hazards that can throw emotional and mental health off course.

Our self-involved consumer society creates appetites that can never be sated. Young people are bombarded with images of the rich, talented, successful or beautiful, according to standards dreamt up in some parallel universe. That can leave a toxic residue of envy, frustration, confusion or perceived inadequacy.

Navigating this treacherous landscape takes determination, pragmatism and self-confidence: qualities not always readily available amid the turmoil of growing pains and erupting hormones.

Emotions take time to settle. The inhibitory frontal lobes of our brain are still growing until our mid-20s, so adolescent volatility may just be what comes naturally. And adolescents take risks because they really can’t imagine coming to serious harm.

Nonetheless, emotionally stunted or abusive family environments, bullying at school or online, and the ready distractions of drugs, alcohol, pornography or risky sex, can make the journey all the more fraught.  Small wonder so many young people fall by the wayside.

Anecdotal evidence and admissions to mental-health services suggest that self-harm, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, suicidiality, conduct problems and autism spectrum disorders are rising sharply among young people[1].

A recent joint inquiry into children and young people’s mental health by the House of Commons Health and Education Committees noted that half of all cases of mental illness start before the age of 15 years, while one in 10 children aged between five and 16 years have had a diagnosed mental disorder[2].

Often these conditions mask underlying traumas. If young people do not know how to channel these experiences, they can develop dysfunctional coping mechanisms. As a nation, our emotional literacy tends to fall short, so ‘just talking about’ it may not be as straightforward as it sounds.

Taking care of well-being  

Young people need to be aware of the potential trigger points for mental-health problems, treating those problems with understanding and tolerance when they do emerge. Above all, they must recognise that well-being does not take care of itself.

Early intervention is a cornerstone of the government’s efforts to achieve parity of provision for mental and physical healthcare. Too often young people enter an under-resourced system at a point where their mental-health problems are already reaching crisis point[3].

While high-quality support and provision must be available and accessible at every tier of entry to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), much can also be done to promote a healthy environment in schools and other relevant settings.

Some of those schools may be too focused on academic attainment at the expense of emotional well-being. Informed attitudes to mental health must also be embedded in teacher training and development.

As the Commons Health Committee noted in 2014, though, young people are also looking for better education and awareness that enable them to take charge of their own mental and emotional wellbeing[4].

New media can help

New media and technology play an enormous part, both positive and negative, in young people’s lives. The pace of change in that virtual but very real world is often far ahead of adult understanding.

As one witness to the recent joint-committee inquiry commented: “I think last year there was quite an extensive report published on the impact on self-esteem of Facebook use, but teenagers are not on Facebook anymore; they have moved on to Instagram and Snapchat.”[5]

This underlines the importance of communicating with young people in terms they understand and through channels they regularly frequent, rather than just demonising mobile technology and social media as breeding grounds for bullying, sexting, extreme imagery, sleep deprivation or negative body consciousness.

In all of these issues, informed choices and understanding of cause and effect are likely to be far more effective than a purely prescriptive strategy that may sweeten the apple of the forbidden.

CAMHS and related services can both educate young people in safe and responsible use of digital media and turn those media to their own advantage, using them as positive channels for education, advice and support on mental-health issues.

The best of times

Often young people just lack a route map or clear set of values: perhaps not so surprising in a ‘post-truth’ age in which information overload is no guarantee of understanding or self-awareness.

They need to recognise that even negative feelings are better acknowledged and addressed; that things do not always work out; nobody is really ‘normal’; and neat solutions are rarely around the corner.

Most young people emerge from these trials stable, resilient and on good terms with life.

Some of them may need a little extra help getting to that point.

We should make sure all young people have the resources to make proactive well-being a guiding principle in what should really be the best of times.

Dr Ian Newey

Consultant Clinical Psychologist – Huntercombe Hospital Norwich

 

[1]  House of Commons Health Committee. Children’s and adolescents’ mental health and CAMHS. Third Report of Session 2014–15. Retrieved from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmhealth/342/342.pdf.

[2] Pupils should have more time for well-being, say MPs. House of Commons Select Committee. 02 May 2017. Retrieved from https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/health-committee/news-parliament-20151/report-children-young-adults-mental-health-16-17/.

[3]  House of Commons Health Committee. Children’s and adolescents’ mental health and CAMHS. Third Report of Session 2014–15. Retrieved from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmhealth/342/342.pdf.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Children and young people’s mental health — the role of education. House of Commons Health Committee publications. Retrieved from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmhealth/849/84902.htm.

Posted: 19/09/2017 by Huntercombe Norwich

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