Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World

Today is the 10th of October, which is World Mental Health Day. On this day every year there is an initiative of global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma. Each year there is a unique theme, with the focus this year firmly being placed on “Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World”.

I feel this theme is one that could be the focus every single year going forward and never lose its relevance. In Ireland, we have a free specialist service called CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). However, this service is extremely stretched beyond capacity with a huge waiting list that is growing bigger with each day.

WHO Research

For the 2018 theme of youth mental health, the World Health Organisation has shared the following research:

  • Half of all mental illness begins by age 14 but goes undetected
  • Depression is the third leading cause of mental illness in adolescents
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds
  • Prevalence of eating disorders are a concern
  • Harmful use of alcohol and illicit drugs is a major issue

The importance of early intervention, life skills and therapy

Many significant challenges and changes occur during adolescence and early adulthood. This can prove to be an extremely challenging time for many. While some adolescents have solid supports and can find a way to cope with these changes and stresses, others struggle greatly. The participation of parents and teachers in helping adolescents to develop life skills to help them cope with everyday challenges at home and at school is essential. Many adolescents do not have the necessary supports to help them navigate safely through these transitional and stressful experiences. They subsequently develop dysfunctional coping skills in order to survive. This is why therapy is essential in many cases. When treated early, the adolescent is learning positive and healthy coping skills that form strong protective factors for good mental health that become habitual and continue on into adulthood.

Teenagers and Technology

Although the WHO report above mentioned technology briefly, more research is needed on the short to long term impact of smart phone and social media (SP/SM) usage on adolescent mental health. In my opinion, this contributes greatly to mental health issues in adolescents. This is an area that I have regularly explored with past and present adolescent clients. When asked if using social media and being on their phones makes them feel better or worse, the answer I’ve always received is that it makes them feel worse.

The Role of Parents

Parents of my adolescent clients have often expressed their concern around their teens SP/SM usage saying things like  “I cant get him off his phone” or “She’s never off her phone”. We’re all aware that telling a teenager to do something often results in them doing the complete opposite! With this in mind, perhaps parents need to change their approach when it comes to tackling SP/SM usage. Firstly, understanding their teens “why” is paramount.

So why do they keep going back to it? In my opinion, there are many reasons why but one of the main reasons is that it forms a huge distraction from their everyday stresses and challenges. Distracting ourselves from reality and things we don’t want to look at or don’t know how to deal with is a form of self soothing. In other words, SP/SM usage is a coping mechanism for many teenagers. It is dysfunctional and makes them feel worse by their own admission. However, it still serves its purpose of distracting them from whatever it is they don’t want to deal with. The good news is that dysfunctional coping skills can be replaced with healthy coping skills through self-awareness and conscious effort to change.

Psychoeducation around Smartphone and Social Media Usage

Once the parent understands the adolescent’s ‘why’, the next step is psychoeducation. We cannot underestimate the impact a conversation around this topic could potentially have. The goal: to open up the channel of communication with adolescents. Admittedly, this will not always work for parents because some teenagers are closed off to the idea of any meaningful dialogue with their parents.

Many teenagers will also be more open to the psychoeducation on all topics if it comes from a therapist rather than a family member. In these cases, the benefits of talking to a trained professional are vast. In this example, the aim for the therapist is to shine a light on SP/SM usage and create an awareness about how the adolescent’s usage makes them feel. The adolescent client can then form their own decision and self discipline around their usage. By doing this, the therapist is empowering them to form their own opinions, take responsibility for their habits and put change into place if they desire to do so. The therapist can also offer accountability by regularly checking in with the adolescent on their progress. As humans, we are all more likely to do the thing we say we’re going to do if there is someone to hold us accountable.

A few examples of healthy coping skills used to replace SP/SM usage are Meditation, Mindfulness, Exercise, Art & Crafts. The healthy coping skill(s) incorporated can differ and depends on the individual and what activity works best for them.