Given that 75% of mental illnesses are established by the time we turn 25, supporting young people’s mental health as they enter adolescence – and a peak period of change in their lives – could make the world of difference in their long-term health. So what support is out there for them? And can a holistic education prepare them for all parts of life, beyond academia?
I heard something the other day that really made my blood boil: “Oh to be a teenager today. These kids don’t know they’re born.”
I’m sure you’re familiar with the sentiment. And sure, wouldn’t it be great to grow up in the age of the Internet? All the answers to any question you’ve ever had, right at your fingertips – or even, your lips (Hey Siri, anyone?).
But the truth is, it’s never been easy to be a teenager. As counsellor Anita Gaisford from We All Need To Talk says: “16 to18-year-olds are at a particularly critical period of vulnerability to mental health issues (with most mental illnesses having their origins in teenage years), as well as then reaching ‘adulthood’ – a period of major physiological, emotional and social change in their life.”
Yes, society and technology have progressed massively for Generation Z, but the cost of higher education is rising rapidly, as are house prices, not to mention that youth unemployment currently stands at around 13%. It’s keeping many young people trapped in what observers are calling “suspended adulthood”.
There is growing evidence that teens are in the grip of a mental-health crisis, given that rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers are at an all-time high – increasing by 70% in the last 25 years. Additionally, NHS data reveals there’s been a 68% increase in teenage girls admitted to hospital for self-harm over the past decade. It’s as if, rather than acting out, young people are turning in on themselves.
But what help is out there for teenagers? On average, teenagers spend 195 days at school per year – that’s 53% of the year. It’s interesting to think about how this time could be best utilised, to help prepare and support teenagers with their long-term mental health.
What problems are teenagers facing?
Counsellor Anita says: “Society places increasing demands on young people to conform to an ideal which, for some, is not attainable. Without emotional resources in place to cope with this, a young person’s mental health may be compromised. This can affect their self-esteem, can lead to increased risk of depression, anxiety, bullying, body image issues, and possibly a fear of failure.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults
One societal expectation is that all teenagers mature at 18, when the reality can be very different. Where some will be ready to move out of their family home, others may not do so at all. Some teens have large networks of friends and family to look to for support, while others may be on their own – reliant on the NHS and social services for help and advice, if they can access it.
2. Falling through the gap
With all the pressure young people are subjected to growing up, it’s no wonder that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) struggle to meet demand across the country. In fact, a 2017 Care Quality Commission report observing child mental health services found that young people can wait as long as 18 months to receive treatment.
Supply and demand isn’t the end of the story, either. CAMHS are primarily focused on people under the age of 18, so young people have traditionally faced a “cliff edge” of care on their 18th birthday. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) suggest that up to two-thirds of teenagers are “lost” or receive interruptions to care as they try to access adult services for the first time.
Claire Nicholson, who works in pastoral care at Bracknell & Wokingham College says: “The transition into adult services when you turn 18 is daunting, and can be overwhelming for some – it’s not always clear how to get the support that is vitally required.”
Mental health charity Young Minds has found that exams are a significant trigger for mental illness – which doesn’t come as a huge surprise.
What is surprising, though, is that this anxiety is thought to transfer to parents as well – who strive to maximise their children’s accomplishments, seeing them as an indication of their own value. This can have a direct impact on young people’s mental health, who may not only be afraid to disappoint their parents, but, in some cases, are afraid to talk to them. A study by the National Citizen Service found that girls, in particular, are more likely to seek comfort on social media when they are worried, rather than talking to their parents.
A key life transition, starting university has the potential to be extremely stressful. Recent analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research has indicated that almost five times as many students have disclosed a mental health condition to their university, compared with 10 years ago.
This has led some critics to ask whether professors and lecturers need to learn about mental health, in order to provide better support for students.
But the onus should be on all of us to do this – from the government to universities, to parents and teachers, and even to students themselves.Rather than expecting educators to be experts in mental health, we should be looking to inform students about what they can do and who to reach out to when they experience a problem.
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England Director and Youth Lead, Caroline Hounsell, responded to this notion, saying: “It’s not about training people to be therapists or counsellors, but simply ensuring they’re equipped with the knowledge and confidence to be able to have conversations around mental health, and signpost young people to further support.”
What can schools do to help?
I’m not sure if mental health support is a big part of choosing which school or college to attend for students or parents. But if it isn’t, maybe it should be.
Practical skills to help young people take care of their mental health will never go out of date; knowing the signs to look out for and when to take action to improve their wellbeing. Claire Nicholson says: “The learning environment needs to feel safe and secure, with the student having confidence in staff offering the right guidance when needed. This means advising on and enabling students to gain access to the information and services both within the educational environment, and externally.”
It’s about providing an education that benefits them for life. In its 2017 report, the Department for Education (DfE) identified some key findings from research into mental health provision in schools and colleges. Almost two-thirds (64%) felt that the promotion of positive mental health and wellbeing was integrated into the school day, while the most common type of support offered for pupils with identified mental health needs was counselling services (61%).
But counselling isn’t the only way schools can support their students’ mental health, and it should be 100% of schools promoting positive mental health, daily.
There are many ways to integrate it into school and college timetables, but two of the most popular activities are:
Skills development sessions:
think time management, CV writing, managing money – useful and practical.
Taught mental health sessions:
whether you’ve heard it as “Personal, Social and Health Education” (PSHE) or “Tutorial”, these lessons are often an essential part of learning about factors that can affect mental health.
One establishment leading the way in pastoral support is the Sixth Form College, Farnborough.
Throughout their time there, students are provided with regular mental health education and advice via a programme lead by a specialist “Health and Wellbeing” team, which includes two trained nurses and a Health and Wellbeing Co-ordinator. The college also provides workshops on a variety of relevant subjects throughout the academic year, on topics such as procrastination and time management.
Additionally, students have the opportunity to talk to a trained counsellor via a free, voluntary and confidential counselling service, giving them the extra support they might need.
The college has been recognised for the emphasis and value it places on providing mental health and emotional wellbeing services to their students, by the AcSEED initiative.
Claire Basil, Lead Counsellor at the college said: “Given the growing awareness and spotlight on teenage mental health, we have worked very hard to provide students with a variety of options to support their emotional wellbeing and mental health.”
We need to be aware of the struggles our teenagers are facing. We need to guide them as best we can, and direct them to helpful resources or further support if needed. But more than that, we need to make sure they’re empowered – to take their mental health into their own hands.
I’m a teenager, how can I take care of my mental health?
We all have bad days – sometimes things might seem overwhelming, but the important thing to remember is that you don’t have to cope on your own. And know that no problem is too big or too small. Taking care of yourself sooner rather than later is always the best step.
Take responsibility for your mental health
It’s up to you to tune into your mind and take care of it on a daily basis – you know when something’s not quite right. It’s not about mending something when it’s broken, it’s about looking after and nurturing your mind every day.
Talk to someone
You might not like asking for help. You may feel that you don’t want to burden other people. You may worry what they might think or even be afraid that they’ll laugh at you. It’s common to have thoughts like this, but think about what you’d say to a friend; would you want them to deal with distress on their own? Of course not. Be your own best friend – don’t be afraid to ask someone for help.
If school or college work is getting too much, speak to your teacher, your form tutor, or another member of staff that you connect with. If your school offers a counselling service, find out how you can access it. You might be able to drop-in, or simply email to refer yourself for a session.
Self-care is important
Life is busy. But, however busy you are, it’s important to take time out for yourself, to relax and recharge your batteries. Some conditions like anxiety and depression can be caused by “too much work and not enough play”. And, not taking time out for relaxation may make any existing mental health issue worse.
Keep physically healthy
It can feel like an extra chore after a long day, but a little bit of exercise can actually help you to feel better. A half-an-hour walk, an exercise class, or a session at the gym can be just the thing to help you de-stress.
Use technology mindfully
Be aware of what triggers your low moods. If, like anyone, scrolling through Instagram can leave you feeling deflated, shut that app down.
Also, be aware of the time of day you’re using technology. We know it’s difficult to switch off your laptop or phone before getting into bed (especially if you struggle to fall asleep). But, it might be the blue lights from your gadgets keeping you awake. Avoid using tech at least half an hour before bed if you can – it will help you get some quality shuteye.
Though, technology’s not all bad. Explore ways you can use tech to make you feel good. Try an app like Headspace if you need a few minutes each day to switch off.
Remember, your academic education is important, but nothing is more important than your mental health.