Children's Mental Health - A Top Priority?

19/05/2016 11:51


This week is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK with a special emphasis on relationships this year. In our lifetime nearly all of us will either be affected by a mental health issue ourselves, care for a close family member or friend with a mental health issue or bear witness to the devastation that mental health issues can wreak on those we care about.

Mental health should be at the top of everyone's agenda for change - it is probably the biggest threat to the health of the next generation and much more needs to be done to tackle the problems that stem from poor mental health. These are not issues that affect someone else, "not my problem" - these are issues that affect huge numbers of people and increasingly too. Mental health should be at least given equal billing with physical health and just because the outward signs may not be as obvious it does not mean that they are not as, if not more, painful and scarring.

Perhaps the most urgent need for change is within the children's mental health arena where the next generation are forging the relationships which will shape their lives and futures. The prevalence of anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, bullying and depression amongst our children has reached critical levels and a big step-up in resources allocated and attention given to these issues is imperative if we are going to give our children any chance of living happy, fulfilling lives in an ever more complicated and pressurised world.

I am a child of the 1970s and 1980s and I have suffered my fair share of anxiety issues in the past. However, in the 30/40 odd years since I was a child, the environment in which our children are raised has changed beyond recognition and the impact of this is felt most keenly within the bounds of mental health. I often wonder how I would cope as a child, prone to anxiety, in today's world - I feel as though I had a lucky escape.

It is worth looking at a couple of comparisons between then and now which demonstrate just what our young people are dealing with now. Perhaps the biggest change has been in terms of technology. There is no doubt that advances in technology - particularly the internet - have transformed our world and many of these changes are hugely positive. However, the internet has also opened a new world of anxiety and fear for young people. My childhood and teens in 1970s/1980s was limited in terms of advertising and images to a few weekly magazines or a couple of TV channels. Put bluntly, I didn't have much to compare myself too. Not so now: our children are bombarded relentlessly by images - what they should look like, how thin they should be, what they should wear, how successful they could be if they emulate the "celebrities" of today etc. How can a child not feel like a failure to some degree under such pressure? It is inevitable that many will be vulnerable to body image issues, anxiety and depression.

It is not just perception of self which is so acutely under the spotlight for our children now but it is also how they are perceived by others. There is no doubt that bullying has been a feature of human interaction for thousands of years but the internet has led to a vast increase in bullying incidences as our children are exposed to much larger numbers of people through social networks and chat rooms etc. Whereas in my youth, bullying was largely confined to school, now it is a problem which can strike 24/7 and the very nature of cyber bullying means that it can be a hidden, secret and isolating affliction. The impact, as we have seen by increased reports of self-harming and suicide, can be devastating.

Living in a virtual world - which so many young people seem to spend increasing amounts of time doing - has increased the problem of social isolation. It may sound simplistic but there is a lot to be said for good old-fashioned outdoor activity with your friends - riding bikes and playing football for example. It has been proved through many studies that exercise and outdoor activity are great stress relievers and vital for good mental health. The less of this our children do and the more time they spend alone in front of a screen is inevitably taking its toll.

Of course, the world of my childhood was not perfect - there was bullying, there were eating disorders and many suffering with varying degrees of anxiety. After all, anxiety and worry are parts of the human condition and I would argue, as a consummate worrier, that there are positive lessons learnt from anxiety which can be a great help and strength in your adult life. There are some things which never change - personality types and a vulnerability to mental health issues (either from environment or genetics). There will always be those who are particularly self-critical with impossibly high standards of self-expectation. There will always be those who suffer from mental health issues just as some of us will suffer from particular physical health issues. There is no difference to my mind except that we still seem to feel the necessity to hide our mental health problems as if they are something of which to be ashamed. They are not.

We need to get our children talking about these issues: facing up to them and admitting there is a problem is half the battle. We need to use the power of the internet and the media to spread the word and to open up the communication channels so that our children know they have someone to go to and that they are not alone. Of course, mental health services need much-increased funding and to operate in a more "joined-up" way - too many children are "falling through the net" - but most crucially we all - not just mental health professionals - need to recognise just how critical the situation is and start dealing with the impact of a world where there is too much choice, so much competition, very little respite from the pressure and yet, ironically in such a "noisy" world, a great deal of isolation.