As many of you will know the work we do here at Teen Tips is all about helping adults create environments that meet the social and emotional needs of young people, helping teenagers gain greater self awareness and giving them the self management tools to protect their mental health and know what to do if they are not feeling ok.
Today is World Mental Health Day and the focus for this year is Suicide Prevention – the campaign has been called #40 seconds because globally someone loses their life to suicide every 40 seconds. Data released by Young Minds showed that in the UK in 2017 suicide was the most common cause of death for both boys and girls aged between 5 and 19. To lose a young person to suicide is just beyond devastating and we desperately need to work harder to prevent anyone else reaching the point where they feel so hopeless and helpless that death feels like the only option.
We all need to be able to spot the signs that someone is in mental distress and then we need to know what we can do to help because the statistics tell us that one in eight 5-19 year olds has a diagnosable mental health condition and even more, one in six, have symptoms of a common mental illness such as depression or anxiety.
So many parents we talk to are struggling to know how best to support their children and I think we can all agree that as a society, we need to take action and the more we can do upstream to stop problems occurring downstream the better. We need to focus on prevention because we simply do not have the resources to provide the care needed once a mental illness is diagnosed.
So what can we do? Well first I think we need to help young people understand that our mental health is not static – just like our physical health it changes from day to day. I don’t agree with giving people labels such as ‘anxious’ or ‘depressed’ because when we do we run the risk of making the person the illness. Rather than saying “she is depressed” we might say instead “she is suffering with depression at the moment”. This implies that it is a temporary state that can be overcome.
Perhaps it is more helpful to think of a mental illness as an injury. Most people will recover from the injury and may never suffer again, others will sustain an injury that leads to longer term problems, with symptoms that are harder to manage, but I think it is vital that we never take away people’s hope of a full recovery.
If young people can truly understand that mental health changes over time i think it gives them hope when they are feeling low and helps them appreciate the need for self care when they are feeling ok. If suicide is a way to stop feeling utterly hopeless and helpless, then giving reassurance and hope is an essential part of prevention.
So why is it that some people can cope with life’s vicissitudes and others just can’t? I am afraid there is no simple answer because our mental health is influenced by a multitude of factors. Our personality, our genes, our environment, our relationships, our attitudes, our actions and our experiences all influence our ability to maintain our wellbeing. When we think about people’s mental health we need to consider all of these factors because they are all intertwined and impact one another. I think this is an important message and especially for parents or carers who may be blaming themselves. Mental illness is way too complicated to be attributable to any one factor. If it weren’t, then all those who experience a traumatic event would get Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but they don’t because there are always other factors at play such as our resilience, personality and environment.
I think it is also helpful to remember that we are actually designed to cope with a lot of stress and I think this is an important message to get across to young people. Stress per say is not always bad – short term situational stress like the stress you might experience going into an exam or on stage makes us perform better. But long term, low level stress is the stress we need to avoid and too many of us are living in this zone – where the stress chemicals, cortisol, adrenalin and noradrenalin are cruising around our bodies, compromising our immune systems and causing all number of physical ailments which, in turn, effect our sense of wellbeing. We all have a mental burnout point and this will differ from person to person.
Adolescence in itself is stressful. They are transitioning from being dependent children to becoming independent adults, which is tough. They have to change the bonds they have with us parents, whilst trying to find their adult identity. Their brains are wired to need social acceptance and connection but to be super sensitive to judgement, criticism or rejection. Many are under way too much pressure to perform. Some are so busy trying desperately to be perfect that they burn out hard and fast. And then there are the decisions that all teenagers must make, some of which, such as drug taking or their use of screens, may have a disastrous impact on their mental health.
There is a lot going on and many of the symptoms that might help in diagnosing a mental health problem in adults, such as fast changing emotions and losing interest in childhood pleasures is normal teenage behaviour.
So here are some signs to watch out for:-
If someone is becoming mentally unwell you would expect to see changes in their thinking, feeling and behaviour and it is important to remember that no one sign means there is a problem.
I also think it is important that we don’t medicalise a normal reaction to a life event – if someone dies it is normal to feel disbelief, sadness, anger and sometimes a host of other emotions such as relief or guilt – it will take time to come to terms with the loss but this is not a mental illness.
If the grief does not abate over time then it may be that some professional help is necessary but in the first instance they need your empathy, your reassurance; practical support and love. They need you to be vigilant and to act if their symptoms worsen. Whatever your thoughts about mental illness may be this is not the time to let your personal prejudices and fears get in the way of their recovery.
If you are concerned that someone you know is suffering a mental illness but you are not sure then consider how different they are to their normal? How many symptoms have you noticed; how often are these symptoms evident, how long have these symptoms been present and how severe are they?
If you have observed a number of symptoms for three weeks or longer then intervention is advised unless they express suicidal thoughts, in which case immediate help is required.
They also need you to look after yourself because when someone is in mental crisis they need as much care and attention as someone who has undergone major surgery and that can be hard work.
If expert help is needed the best place to start is with your GP. On the Resources page of the Teen Tips website you will find links to organisations who offer psychological help.
As they start to recover we can gently encourage them to do the things that will help them recover more quickly. Just as we must do our physio after physical injury so we must learn to use healthy coping strategies to build our resilience after a mental injury.
Help them discover what makes them feel better: talking, learning to ask for help, learning to face problems and avoid procrastination, learning to be kinder to themselves and to give up on perfection; using relaxation techniques, taking regular exercise, getting outdoors every day, eating well, doing hobbies that spark joy and socialising and perhaps most importantly of all, prioritising sleep.
These things not only aid recovery after injury they are also preventative and the more of them we add into our daily lives, the more emotionally resilient we become. I think it is vital that we teach young people to explore and use their coping strategies not only to build their resilience but also because when the stress builds if they are not using the healthy coping strategies they are likely to use the unhealthy ones. Substance abuse, self-harm, emotional eating, compulsive spending, sleeping excessively, procrastinating, zoning out for hours on screens and withdrawing from friends and family may offer temporary relief but they all exacerbate problems over the long term.
And so we come to the end of this podcast. In summary we need to be vigilant, please don’t ignore the signs because the sooner a problem is addressed the less likely it is to remain or recur. Assess risk by considering the number of symptoms you have noticed, how long they have been present for and how severe the symptoms are. Listen without judgement; give reassurance; explore options for help and encourage self-help.
I hope you have found this blog post helpful because being mentally unwell can be terrifying not only for the sufferer but also for all those who love and care for them. You might like to listen to this as a podcast. Do use the resources that are available and say yes to anyone who offers to support you because you too are worth it.
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