Mental Health Series

Conflicting messages about mental health and the rising levels of unhappiness in young people

Rising levels of unhappiness, anxiety and depression among teenagers, increasing numbers of young people around the globe with eating disorders, young people inflicting self-harm on their bodies and in extreme cases experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviours. These are headlines which are sadly becoming more and more familiar.

A common, knee-jerk reaction is to blame this disturbing trend on the constant presence of technology in our lives, particularly smartphones, and the amount of time young people are now spending on social media.

But is there any correlation between these two trends, and more importantly is there evidence of causation?

Young people certainly spend less time socialising face-to-face and more time connecting electronically, mainly through social media. It would seem that this can lead some to experience feelings of isolation.

For some this is aggravated by excessive use of gaming or social media sites, and feelings of inadequacy brought on by a constant exposure to social media images of other people’s lives, and in some cases to cyber-bullying.

In a recent report 70% of respondents aged between 14 and 24 said Instagram made them feel worse about body image and half of the those surveyed reported that Instagram and Facebook increased their feelings of anxiety. Two-thirds said Facebook made cyber-bullying worse.

As parents and educators, we have a completely new challenge before us.

Around the world there are increasing reports of mental health concerns in young people and an increased demand on mental health services.

Whether this represents an actual rise in the deterioration of young people’s mental health or rather an awareness of symptoms and diagnosis is unclear.

Moreover, mental health awareness could encourage people to label sadness as depression and nervousness as anxiety, blurring the lines between lesser and greater problems, and at worst glamorising or trivialising serious and complex psychological disorders.

There are conflicting messages about the causes of the mental health epidemic, but we don’t have the option to do nothing.

Most teens are still developing both their brains and their behaviours and have not had sufficient life experiences to build up emotional resilience.

We have a real responsibility to support young people; helping them to develop resilience, showing them how to improve their wellbeing, and to challenge the misinformation and pressures to which they are becoming exposed to.

We now have a much better understanding of mental health issues. Young people are learning the language and being encouraged to speak more openly about their feelings with less stigma than previous generations.

Things that can help keep young people well include being in good physical health, being able to learn and have opportunities to enjoy themselves, feeling safe and like they have some control over their life.

This article is the first in a series addressing concerns in mental health and steps we can take as parents and educators to support the emotional well-being and resilience of young people.