THE BLOG

A Ticking Time Bomb?

28/08/2015 18:12 BST | Updated 28/08/2016 10:59 BST

The evidence that children and young people in the UK are some of the unhappiest in the world continues to mount. In the last week, one charity has revealed we lag behind Algeria, Romania and Ethiopia in terms of well-being, and another has highlighted the mental anguish young girls face every day.

It doesn't need great powers of deduction to see that rising levels of distress among our young people is likely to translate into more adults who are struggling to cope in the future. Samaritans already answers 5m calls for help a year from adults.

I remember vividly the difficulties of being a young person - and know the real joy and emancipation of getting older. It makes me wonder why we seem to be incapable of creating a world that cherishes and nurtures all our children and young people.

It seems to me that children and young people's health and well-being is a matter of intergenerational justice that collectively we must address. Until then, Samaritans' formidable army of more than 21,000 volunteers will need to gear up to be there round the clock for future generations.

A question which also needs addressing is how do we build emotional resilience among young people which will stand them in good stead later in life and reduce the risk of them floundering as adults? The melancholic English poet Philip Larkin may have written that Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf, but as a nation we should be dedicated to letting people know where they can get help and find a way through their problems, rather than letting distress flow on from generation to generation.

Mental health, cyber bullying and future joblessness came out as major worries for young girls in the widely-reported Girlguiding Girls' Attitude Survey. Parents, the survey found, worried about drugs, alcohol consumption, sex and unwanted pregnancy rather than their children's day-to -day coping strategies and mental well-being.

The larger survey for the Children's World project which looked at the lives of 53,000 children in 15 countries, found children in the UK cited the "exam factory" mentality in schools, bullying and friendship issues as reasons for their unhappiness.

Self harm was also flagged up as a serious problem among 11-21 year olds by three-quarters of the young women who took part in the Girlguiding survey.

It is positive that recurring issues are being publicly identified, but that can only take us so far - getting someone who is struggling to take the vital, and potentially life-saving, first step of reaching out for help is a big ask. Perhaps giving people the tools to understand their emotions, or at least helping them to recognise when they might need to approach a third party for help, is the way forward.

A change of emphasis in society is also needed if we are to stop this potential tidal wave of unhappiness in its tracks before it leads to greater problems in the coming generations.

The Children's Society, which was involved with the Children's World survey in the UK, has been calling for more counsellors in schools, and schools are certainly a good place to start when building better emotional health.

In recognition of these issues, Samaritans developed DEAL (Developing Emotional Awareness and Listening) which is delivered as part of Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education in secondary schools.

DEAL gets teenagers to examine and discuss emotional health, coping strategies, feelings and communication skills.

Negotiating difficult emotions is a steep learning curve for most of us, and we gradually learn that ups and downs are normal, but there are times and events in life that can overwhelm us, and at any stage, any one of us can need support.

Talking openly about feelings and looking at ways to get through difficult times such as changes in friendships, divorce, moving house, failing an important exam, losing a job or a friend or relative dying, these challenges are thrown up at every stage of life.

It's a conversation we all need to have, young and old, about how we can support people who need it most and how we can as a society, make it easier to talk about feelings and ask for help - and that it is a sign of strength, and not of weakness.