Teenage time-bomb: Why are our teens struggling with their mental health?

The Terrace head in handsIt has always been tough to be a teenager – it is a rite of passage; a period when wanting to be treated as an adult combines with the vulnerabilities of childhood to make an often confusing mix of emotions. But are 21st century pressures increasing the risks of long-term health issues?

News today suggests that a Department of Education survey of pupils  aged 14 and 15 has found that more than one in three of the teenage girls report symptoms of anxiety and depression. This equates to a rise of 10% over the past ten years and as such is clearly a major concern for parents, educators and society as a whole.

Girls reported  considerably higher levels of psychological distress than the boys – 37% having three or more symptoms compared to just 15%, and in boys the percentage has fallen since 2005.

The Daily Telegraph quotes Nick Harrop, of charity YoungMinds, who believes it has much to do with the way in which 21st century life impacts on young women:

“Teenage girls today face a huge range of pressures. Stress at school, body image worries, early sexualisation, bullying on and offline and uncertainty about the future after school are all piling on the stress,” he tells me. “Social media also puts pressure on girls to live their lives in the public domain, to present a personal ‘brand’ from a young age, and to seek reassurance in the form of likes and shares.”

Certainly, the rise of Instagram, Snapchat and the other image based social media channels has created more ways to challenge a girl’s image of herself compared to her peers, and sadly, to the photoshopped images of models and celebrites. Girls report issues with eating, with concentration and with anxiety, as they are constantly made aware of the importance of appearance in the media. Too little emphasis seems to be put on successful career women, perhaps, rather than those who model or walk the red carpet.

But others, such as former mental health tsar  Natasha Devon  think it is more to do with the kind of lives young people have to lead now, as parents work longer hours and success in life appears driven by higher salaries and working harder than ever to buy  those things, such as a home, that previous generations took for granted. In addition, all those subjects that supported good mental health are squeezed in the recent changes to the curriculum – music, art, sports and drama often provided a balance to the more academic subjects in which a young person felt more pressurised. Interestingly, those from a more affluent background were more likely to feel worried about achieving less than their parents hoped for them.

But Natasha Devon thinks the only difference between the sexes is how they deal with their mental health problems. She is quoted as saying:

“At an adult level, women are three times more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression, which makes them look like primarily female issues. But men are more likely to seek help for substance abuse and are far more likely to take their own lives. It suggests to me women seek help for anxiety and depression but men self-medicate and tend to wait before they reach crisis point.”

This tends to suggest that where girls might be more ready to seek help, in the longer term it is boys who need greater support.

So what can be done? Here at The Terrace we have a number of therapists skilled in working with children and young adults, and we know how complex an issue this is. A good place to start would be in schools, where changes in behaviour can be noticed early and elements put in place during the school day to support self-confidence and self-esteem.

What do you think would be a good first step?  We would love to hear your views on what could be a proverbial ‘time bomb’, as a generation struggles to come to terms with the every-increasing and pressurised pace of 21st century life.

Teenage Depression – a blog for the Blurt Foundation

blurtThis post was originally published on the website of the wonderful Blurt Foundation last week. Jane was pleased to be asked to contribute to their blog, which offers people experiencing depression and anxiety the opportunity to tell their story and share experiences. The whole website offers factsheets and support in a friendly and accessible way. Do take a look. If you have anything to share Blurt would like to hear from you!

Have we learnt nothing?  In one way lots has changed since I was a teenager 40 years ago, but I am disheartened that really, despite lots more research and information, we are re-creating the same old, same old – pressurising teenagers to be ‘who we want them to be’, with a constant stream of examinations – where they have to perform on a yearly basis, within narrow and repetitive fields.  The proportion of young people aged 15-16 being diagnosed with a conduct disorder more than doubled between 1974 and 1999 – these figures are depressing.

How can we expect to grow our young into rounded and creative human beings when we are constantly squeezing them into our system?  My own experience was as a teenager in the 70’s and the more pressure applied to me created a corresponding amount of anxiety, followed by me suppressing these anxious feelings  – numbing out and feeling depressed.  I was – mostly – a good natured young adult wishing to do my best.  That ‘doing my best’ however created a miserable inner life for me, where I felt very deadened and detached – and of course angry about that!

During the last decade I have been interested  by the culture of ‘como drinking’ realising that drinking may be this generations way of responding to the pressure we are putting them under.   The cycle of our pressurising performing culture creating a default psychology of their need to let go – literally through alcohol by becoming paralytic.   We create the pressure and this is the letting off of their steam – cause and effect – simple really…

Back in the 70’s I found a gem in meditation – I was lucky.   I, seemingly out of nowhere, asked for a 16th birthday present of a course in meditation.  I suffered the teasing from family and friends and sticking to my wish I completed the course, which helped me manage my anxiety and gave me some freedom in my life.   I did no longer need to measure everything in order to manage my level of anxiety.

More importantly, and very exciting it was, I learnt there was something inside me.  I was amazed to find I had an inner experience of myself, and in connecting to myself I felt softer and reassured that I did exist – literally I was a person too!

Was this an experience I could talk about – not really.  However I had had a taste of what it was to be able to have an experience where I listened to myself, and that I existed and mattered.  That was to be repeated when I went into counselling in my early 30’s and I thought bingo, I know this feeling and I like it.   I was listened to in a way that supported me and the counsellor heard, and acknowledged, my experience and my feelings.  This seems very simple and it’s what we need to be doing for our young people.

This brings me back to today – how are we creating this for our young people – supporting them to be themselves, to listen to their passion and be acknowledged and responded to.

Do we stop and think “Maybe it’s not them” – maybe it’s us creating an anxious environment for our young people.  We may be creating a world that is ‘progressive’ but until we learn to be more people centred and respond on a human level to each person, and young person , as an individual we are not using the information we have to provide our young with the best possible start.

Let’s start listening and acknowledging our young people and allow them to express themselves as unique individuals, say who they are, and allow and listen to their feelings.  That would be a good start to reducing anxiety and depression, and taking responsibility that we are part of the problem.

Jane is the founder of The Terrace which is Taunton’s leading therapy centre. If you’d like more information about their work, please visit their website here –> http://www.theterrace.co.uk