In Search of Utopia: Young People’s Mental Health in a Changing World
Marielle* is a bright 16 year old who struggles with friendships. Recently she's had a series of psychotic episodes. She tells me that she hears voices in her head; odd words and phrases that sometimes sound like instructions. She says it is crucially important to write these phrases down and at home she has placed notebooks in strategic places for when the voices start. Recently however, she went to a local park where she began to hear the voices. Realising she had nothing with her on which to record the phrases, she panicked, ran into nearby woodland and scratched the words Go to Utopia into her legs with a piece of glass.
Working with Marielle reminds me that for many young people their experience is rather of something approaching a dystopia, an unequal, deeply flawed society in which wealth, fame and popularity are the measures of a worthwhile life.
Chances and changes
One could argue that this downward spiral can be blamed on recent political agendas but what we can say for sure is that for those young people whose life chances were slimmer even at birth, their daily experience is often the misery brought about by poverty, lack of opportunity, childhood trauma and the problems of the adults around them.
On a wider scale too, we live in a very uncertain world and a time in which there are seismic political and economic shifts occurring at an international level.
If the saber-rattling tirades of some politicians are disturbing to us adults, they can mean sleepless nights for a 15 year old who is terrified by the prospect of nuclear war. How do we reassure her? Can we say everything will be all right?
I've been working for the Emotional Wellbeing Service for four months. Should I still be shocked by twelve year olds self harming and talking of ending their young lives? Is there a mental health crisis affecting young people in this country? Many say there is -indeed, a recent report called it a “silent catastrophe” and the Association of Child Psychotherapists warned of a “serious and worsening crisis”. What is clear to me is that this is a generation struggling to cope in the midst of unprecedented societal changes as well as grappling with the eternal adolescent questions: Who am I? Where do I belong? and What do I stand for?
Stripes and ticks
The biggest challenge for the teenage generation and those that follow is surely to halt the damage being done to our environment and whereas some individuals are deeply concerned, many more young people are caught in an endless cycle of consuming. Products are advertised directly at young people, promising popularity and status and young people are consuming more and faster than ever.
Young people's experiences are in the here and now but also in the virtual world of social media; a world that is always switched on, one in which there is endless scrutiny and comparison and one in which celebrities and fashion brands are worshipped.
That wearing a particular stripe or tick on your trainers is more important than the thousands of tons of plastic dumped into our oceans is surely indicative that there is something radically wrong with the way we are educating our young people. For a young person to be bullied for not wearing a particular stripe or tick is also indicative of an education system that does not focus on teaching emotional literacy.
Education, education, education
Our state education system is designed to create efficient technicians who will bolster a future economy. Young people sit rigourous exams in readiness for university and employment, but at the same time their emotional literacy is neglected.
As far back as 1953, the thinker and teacher J. Krishnamurti wrote: “What is the good of learning if in the process of living we are destroying ourselves? As we are having a series of devastating wars, one right after another, there is obviously something wrong with the way we bring up our children”**.
Clearly, the challenges are great in a society where the gap between rich and poor is ever widening, where budgets for mental health services are continually under threat, where housing is a lottery, where hate crime against children is on the rise; where obesity is at a critical level, where young people are groomed by drugs gangs to sell their wares, where new psychoactive substances emerge every day onto a thriving market and where young people can now buy drugs via Snapchat or Instagram.
The greatest challenge
So for young people to be able to cope with a complex society that is clearly in trouble – but unlikely to change overnight – it is vitally important that we teach them resilience; emotional coping skills that will equip them to meet future challenges, to teach them why it is a good idea to look after themselves and each other - to teach them to recognise the difference between good and bad relationships, to nurture themselves, their communities and the environment.
Here at the Emotional Wellbeing Service we are attempting to engage with this challenge head on, by promoting positive wellbeing and teaching strategies that strengthen emotional resilience and regulation. Young people engaging in risk-taking behaviours are equipped with harm reduction advice, alongside support to find alternative, healthier ways of coping.
The results are encouraging: Young people can be amazingly resilient but we must remember, as parents and practitioners, it is our responsibility to stand alongside our young people, to keep up with this rapidly changing world, and, above all, to listen – listen very deeply - to their concerns.
The Emotional Wellbeing Service works with 10-18 year olds in the city of Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan.
*Name changed to protect identity
**Source: Education and the Significance of Life, J. Krishnamurti, Harper and Row, (1981).