“School days are the best days of your life”, or so the old saying goes. Funnily enough, you don’t hear too many people say that these days. Of course, if you’ve been following the news for the last couple of years, or perhaps been a young person in the last couple of decades, then you will be under no illusions about the many stresses involved in growing up in modern British society.
Working as part of the Heads 1st Team at Volunteering Matters, I get to hear a lot of views on young people’s mental health. During the last academic year, our team delivered twenty awareness-raising sessions for parents on child and adolescent mental health and thirteen short courses on personal wellbeing for students in Suffolk High Schools. Most parents are quick to identify things that their children worry about; social media, exams and deciding what to do in the future are amongst the issues most commonly mentioned. When we ask young people what stresses they’re carrying, they mention these things but also refer more generally to bullying and peer pressure, as well as wider world issues such as the threat of terrorism.
None of this should come as any surprise. These worries reflect the world we live in and the reality of growing up in today’s society. Yet a couple of challenging questions do crop up quite regularly in discussions with young people, parents and teachers about young people’s mental health. The first of these questions is ‘have mental health issues really become more common amongst young people in the last twenty years or is it just that we have become more aware of them?’ The second is ‘how can we distinguish mental health from the normal experience of being a teenager? Is there, perhaps, a danger that we are becoming too quick to medicalise normal emotions?’
These are two very big questions and ones to which there are no definitive answers. With respect to the first, there is certainly no shortage of statistics which suggest mental health issues are becoming increasingly common amongst young people. But the question is really an attempt to get behind these statistics. I asked some of the adults who attend The Loop, an adult mental wellbeing service we run at our Ipswich centre, for their thoughts.
From a personal perspective, many of these adults said that their first experience of mental health problems occurred during their childhood or adolescence and, like young people today, many identified bullying and peer pressure as triggers. Most felt that, while bullying has changed in some ways over the years, it has always had the same detrimental impact on mental health.
Older members of the group commented that, whilst they didn’t have to worry about year nine options and social media when they were teenagers, they had to contend with a different range of issues including the Eleven Plus exam, being branded ‘stupid’ due to unrecognised dyslexia and corporal punishments from teachers. In the end, the jury was out on whether mental health issues have become commoner amongst young people, but all felt that such issues are much more likely to be recognised today than when they were younger.
So, should we be worried that this increased awareness of mental issues will lead to young people being too readily diagnosed with mental health conditions? From a medical perspective probably not; young people referred to CAMHS usually wait at least a month for an initial assessment so are unlikely to be given a diagnosis before their symptoms have persisted for some time. Also, while public awareness of mental health has increased during the last few years, diagnostic criteria have not suddenly been rewritten. There is perhaps a risk that, with young people and parents becoming more aware of mental health issues, self-diagnosis might increase. However, if this does happen, is it really such a bad thing?
When our team deliver mental health sessions in high schools we often draw parallels between mental and physical health. Mental health, we tell students, is something which we all have and, just like physical health problems, mental health problems can range from very minor (like having a cold) to major (like having a long-term physical disability). So, we’re introducing the idea that mental health problems exist along a spectrum and, if we understand mental health in this way, perhaps drawing a line at an abstract point on this spectrum to divide the ‘medical’ from the ‘non-medical’ doesn’t really make sense. The important thing, we tell students is to address the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing, whether this means using your own strategies, getting informal or professional help or a combination of these things.
For more information on the work of Heads 1st in Suffolk, visit volunteeringmatters.org.uk and search for ANCHOR and The Loop.
Heads 1st Project Manager