Given the renewed focus in the UK to address years of stigmatising, ignoring or explaining away it is refreshing to see mental health is being acknowledged as an issue worthy of time, money and initiatives. For too long the rote British attitude of ‘stiff upper lip’ has been the watchword of the many and asking for help was akin to being caught watching pornography by a grandparent. Americans were sniffed at for embracing therapy so enthusiastically and dismissed as vain narcissists for wanting to talk through their problems. All of which seems self evidently mad, given the time and effort that people expend on going to the gym, keeping fit, eating healthy – to neglect what drives it all is a ludicrous oversight. As we stand here a few weeks after World Mental Health Day I’ve thought about what we could do to help alleviate at least some of the issues students are facing.
We’re all no doubt aware of the rising trend for depression, anxiety, panic attacks, even suicidal thoughts within teenage girls with a 68% rise in incidents of hospitalization for self-harm in girls under 17 over the last decade. Although not as steep, the boys’ numbers are also indicative of a worrying rise. 1 in 4 university students have been diagnosed with some form of mental health concern from mild anxiety to more serious considerations. Yes, social media, body shaming, online bullying may account for many of these issues but that may be too reductive – social media has allowed everyone’s lives to be judged, to be weighed and measured and ultimately commented upon with instantaneous peer approval or condemnation. Adolescents of today live in a goldfish bowl of their own making but it’s so persuasive, so ubiquitous that to deny it is to exist outside of ‘the norm’ which with it brings further judgement. A perfect rat race with no off ramp. But, when teenagers go online, post photos, make videos, expose themselves to critique it is surely because of the intoxicating high that comes with validation. Having people give you thumbs up or laughing emojis, to feel you are connecting with people is really asking for their approval. To drown out the doubts in your mind by popular consensus. Validation of one’s looks, one’s choices and fundamentally one.
I wonder if perhaps this need for validation comes from a place not just of insecurity but of fear. Fear that you’re not getting it right, fear of your choices, fear of your life, fear of the future. It is perhaps naive or maybe just wrongheaded but I’ve always maintained that the best route to conquering fear is to confront it – what am I scared of, what am I worried about? Being honest about what the fundamental issues are and then working out a plan to deal with them one at a time. To break them down to bite size chunks that can be dealt with, rather than allowing a huge lumpen block grow like fatberg in your mind. The level of pressure and scrutiny that students are under now, particularly given the backdrop of Brexit, traditional careers being outmoded before they’ve finished training for them and the spiralling cost of university study, now more than ever there is a palpable fear of not succeeding, of being a failure. A fear that is underpinned by a school system that is content to route everyone to university if possible, to fail to give them the tools to access the careers of their choice, to fail to give them the tools to even identify what that career may be.
For too long schools have been underfunded and careers advice is ceded to teachers who by the limits of their own knowledge cannot give their students anything more than what they themselves have read on Google. It is seen as a luxury rather than an essential and this is the cruellest joke of all – I have always believed the central tenet of schooling is to help shepherd and prepare students for their lives, to make them a nuanced, interested, excited, well rounded vanguard of the next generation. To excite them about their possibilities, their opportunities, in short to help them make the best possible lives for themselves. By relegating a robust and comprehensive careers and academic advisory service to a box-ticking afterthought they are failing to uphold that which they are tasked with, perhaps if they were targeted on pupil happiness and wellbeing five or ten years after leaving school rather than their immediate destinations we might see more effort, resources and thought ploughed into ensuring they had secure futures rather than just a short term panacea.
Parents are those that are being duped most of all though. We rely on the schools to do this stuff for our kids, we trust them, we believe them when they say they are doing it. I don’t even think it’s cynical, I believe they believe they are doing everything possible but that sadly serves only to highlight their limitations. Yes of course it’s simplistic and easy to say – get a plan, and yes that is not the answer to everything but with all the uncertainty, insecurity and pressure our teenagers are facing surely our responsibility as adults, as parents, as a society is to give them a firm bedrock, one tangible thing to hang on to, a light on the horizon, a promise of a better tomorrow?
Rather than give you a list of things you can be doing straightaway (although that will come) the one takeaway from this blog should be to get proactive. If your child is interested in something (anything) as a possible career route, ask everyone you know, everyone you work with to try and find someone relevant to that career that they can talk to, that could introduce them to others, could offer them insight, work experience, an internship. Simply put – don’t wait for the school to help – they will eventually but it’ll be too little, too late. There’s never a better time to start than right now, no matter how young, if they have an interest foster and encourage, if they turn away from it later they still will have learned valuable lessons about their own interests, ambitions and future decisions will come from a place of knowledge not ‘gut feeling’.
So in the month of World Mental Health Day, think about what you can do to help remove at least one uncertainty, one stresser, one pressure point from your child’s life by giving them the tools to secure their future.