There’s been a change in the air. Our culture is starting to understand mental health more and respect those who suffer from poor mental health to a much higher degree. Gone are the days where we felt the need to hide any sign of “weakness” or anything that made us stand out from the crowd, psychologically speaking. We’re able to recognise that a mental health issue does not define a person and that there are real treatments that can be put in place to help the individual.
"The first time I experienced depression I was aged 16. I felt confused and scared".
Nevertheless, the headlines seem filled on a regular basis with stories about a particular demographic who seem to be struggling as a whole with rising levels of mental health issues: young people. Students and young professionals are experiencing extremely high amounts of mental health problems, focusing in on anxiety and depression as frequent issues. As a young woman in the working world, I see it everywhere. In my friends, family members, colleagues and ex-classmates from university. As a collective, young people are going through a notably tough time.
Before we get caught up in statistics and solutions though, it’s important to take a step back and understand what I mean with mental health in this piece, and in particular the focus of this study: anxiety, depression and burnout.
"I grew up understanding that any negative feelings were bad, rather than encouraged to see negative emotions as natural and unavoidable human experiences"
Mental health is officially defined by the World Health Organisation as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. That being said, when we talk about mental health normally, we don’t usually consider it in the positive light; we mean mental health troubles. When our brains don’t seem to want to cooperate and start to cause issues for us in our day-to-day lives. Although the spotlight for this article is on some of the more common disorders, mental health issues can come in all shapes and forms, and to people of all backgrounds, races, religions and orientations.
The term depression encompasses the feeling of low mood that lasts for a long time, affecting your routine and everyday life and making you feel hopeless, despairing, guilty, worthless, unmotivated and exhausted. Depression can vary from milder cases which tamper with the stability of your emotional state, to much more severe and life-threatening forms which can make someone feel suicidal. Meanwhile anxiety is the name for when we’re worried, tense, afraid or at times insecure. Most people operate with a normal level of anxiety in certain situations, however it can become a more complex issue requiring professional mental health intervention. The last variation of mental health which occurs frequently in young people is less about an embedded condition in your psyche but instead is a gradual process, which can result in a full breakdown if not treated. It’s the complete emotional, mental and physical exhaustion that comes from overwhelming stress.
"Depression doesn't stop me from living, and I won't let it"
Now that we understand the state of play, why should we give young people special attention here? If mental health problems are such changeable and all-encompassing beasts, why not just look at everyone? The reality is though that in modern social work practice, countless practitioners are recognising the prevalence of mental health issues in children and young people. The WHO reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 20% of adolescents experience a mental health problem in any given year. 20% of people whose psychological make-up is still developing are experiencing poor mental health. I personally feel that’s enough of a justification for looking into this more.
"Failing to kill myself prompted me to decide that I couldn't do this on my own"
So why is it that every few days we’re hearing of new stories about mental health conditions in our young people? Is it because there are more triggers? Are the services not effective? Or is the reality that children and young people have always struggled with mental health, but it’s only now that we understand the area better that we’re able to identify different conditions?
"I didn't ask for help because I was unaware of what anxiety and depression were and how they affect young adults."
The data says that 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24; but I wanted to look beyond the official stats and talk to real people. After all, social work is all about actual individuals and helping them through trying times – so why not hear from the front-line of youth mental health? I collated honest descriptions of experiences from a variety of teenagers and young people from around the UK, all with different backgrounds and upbringings, to try to comprehend why young people are facing such a difficult mental health experience.
Obviously, I didn’t come up with the magical simple answer that can solve all youth mental health problems. Psychology doesn’t work like that. (Wouldn’t it be nice if it did?) However, a few common perspectives on the pressures felt by young people emerged, helping to educate me (and by consequence, hopefully you, our readers) about what young people are really feeling. Once we as a sector know that, we’re one step closer to getting every young person back to a positive mental health frame of mind.
"Social media is Satan."
Aside from a few cases where they had experienced a trauma as a child, all the respondents did not point to one specific cause. It was about the collective experience of being young in the modern world and how that slowly wore down their mental strength. The pressure of facing decisions that might impact the rest of your life (what A-Levels to choose? University or not?) combine with the natural hormonal changes that we go through as we develop into a lethal concoction of stress and overwhelming emotions. As someone who moved country at 17, I can personally empathise with the effect these decisions, choices and changes have on your developing psyche.
"Social media both drove me up the walls and became a vessel to channel my anger."
Social media was recognised as a common trigger for many people, given the power it has over our modern society. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other such platforms dominate our lives, and for those who have grown up with higher levels of technology, we’re subliminally addicted. It’s so easy to just open up an app and see people supposedly living the life you want. Being more attractive or photogenic than you. Achieving more in their lives than you. And the main problem is, none of it is real. The grass is always greener somewhere else, and every social media influencer is putting out only the positives. On these platforms we control the narrative that we put out to the World and that type of dishonesty is incredibly dangerous. Creating these false personas online means that we not only deceive our “friends” and followers, but also ourselves. It becomes a self-sabotage, driving us to feel insecure about our real lives because they’re not living up to our Instagram profiles. One interviewee noted that as soon as they recognised the power given to these platforms, it became easier to approach social media in a healthier way and even use it as part of the recovery process. “I learned that I can openly speak about my mental health issues online and don’t have to sugar-coat my life”.
"I realised that what I'm doing is affecting people I love as much as it's affecting me."
Above all, the children and young people we spoke to pointed to one thing: the stigma surrounding mental health and getting help for issues. No matter what strides have been made in regard to opening up the conversation about mental health, there is so much more we can do. 70% of children and young people who experience a mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age (Mental Health Foundation, 2019). We’re not recognising the reality of young people’s mental health and thus leaving the problems to fester and develop into more severe situations than they should be. The NHS reported that one in eight 5-19 year olds had at least one mental disorder when assessed in 2017. That’s around 12% of our children/young people who have poor mental health in one or more formats; so, we can’t pretend that mental health is something that happens to grown-ups. And yet, the stigma of not talking about mental health sometimes has even more of a strength when looking at children or young people. It’s almost as if we don’t want to believe such young people could be experiencing such difficult times, it’s such an upsetting idea, that we just refuse to properly consider it. This traps children who feel out of control in the feeling that they have to hide their emotions, rather than learning to process them in a healthy way. The people I interviewed also highlighted that it’s more likely for women and girls to speak about mental health than men/boys. The male gender is being smothered by toxic masculinity and what is “expected” of them – meaning that boys are still growing up feeling like even just talking about their feelings is wrong. There are so many aspects of this that make me angry. Every child, young person and adult should feel like they can be honest about their feelings, as only by sharing our experiences can we recognise that there’s validity in negative emotions and that it’s a natural human process.
"Counselling motivated me to speak about my problems as a disease I can fix, rather than a personal fault."
Looking into all these issues and restrictions to promoting positive mental health across the UK can make you feel slightly hopeless, but I beg you, please don’t lose hope. Whether you’re a practitioner actively working with young people who are going through mental health problems or just a compassionate member of the community looking to help: there’s so much we can do. Firstly, let’s shout from the rooftops about the fantastic services that exist and the help they can provide. Countless people work day in day out to be a voice at the end of a helpline or offering counsel over a cup of tea.
Another key area to focus on is education. Whether in structured settings or not, let’s educate ourselves about what mental health actually is. I often get so angry at myself for the fact that I can probably name every Kardashian sibling and the lyrics to songs I’ve not heard since the 90s, but I don’t know nearly enough about mental disorders that members of my own family have gone through. Pop culture holds our attention so much, but what about the things that really matter? Let’s spend more of the Hollywood big bucks on films and tv shows that help the wider population understand the truth about mental health. I also believe that mental health education and coping mechanisms should also be engrained to an extent into school curriculums so that from an early age we’re able to recognise different feelings and how to handle them. If the interviews for this piece taught me anything, it’s that we all go through so much from day one and we need to learn much earlier in the process that we’re not going through this alone, and that it’s okay to not be okay.
By Elena Jones, One Stop Social Team.
"Even after seeking help, it was a long process before I accepted that I wasn't different for having a hard time."
"I felt overwhelmed by work, but I couldn't admit something was really wrong until I ended up in hospital. it was as if I was admitting a failure to be an 'adult'."
"I felt disconnected and a desperate sadness that seemed to come from nowhere. There was no obvious external trigger so it had to be my fault!"
"I think it just had a lot to do with the uncertainty of the future."
While you're here...
One Stop Social has a whole range of helpful mental health resources to further your practice and to ensure the vulnerable people you work with get the best support. Here are just a few recommended tools and guides we find useful.