THE BLOG

We Need to Help Young People With Mental Illness Feel Empowered

15/03/2016 11:07 GMT | Updated 15/03/2017 09:12 GMT

Mental health and mental illness are in my opinion one of the most important conversations we need to be having with young people. As diagnosis of depression and anxiety hit all time highs and recent surveys show that the rise of self-harm injuries in hospitals is increasing, there leaves little to be argued that our young people are hurting. While people blame everything from mobile phones and body confidence to the fixation with the perfect selfie, I think we are far from knowing what is causing the decrease in our children's mental toughness. Maybe it is just that they are more likely to speak up and seek help and that accounts for the rise in recorded cases. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that Generation Z are fast becoming Generation Disorder and it worries me that we are not equipping them to support themselves and navigate their somewhat turbulent brains.

Having worked for over 25 years with young people, I feel I have a perspective on the situation which is unique and youth-driven. About 80% of the young people I work with at the moment present with some kind of "label" which they often introduce themselves by before even telling me their name. Some are diagnosed, others not, but all suffering in some way. After numerous conversations with them and asking what they need, what they wished could have happened early on when the symptoms started; here is what I have concluded.

The current system, which I am not here to berate, makes them feel very unempowered. Sometimes the systems helps, mostly it does not and often these young people are left feeling like they have no control and there is no way out.

When asked what they need, they clearly state the need for empowering conversations that may help them feel they can handle this.

Here is what I have concluded from young people.

1. We need to start having more empowering conversations. Often, young people are left feeling broken, like they need fixing, and see their mental illness as a block in their way. Often the only support they are offered is a talking therapy, which many have to wait months for. There are no conversations about how to look after your mental wellbeing for example the impacts that exercise, food and screen use have. They are left feeling like the only way to fix them is when a person with expertise gives them the answer.

2. We need to start having conversations about the early signs of mental illness and giving young people real solutions that allow them to start to live with the issues they have. There seems to be a belief within the young that you get depressed, get therapy or tablets and get better, but we all know that is not true. Often, people who suffer from depression or anxiety will spend a lifetime battling it. This is not about curing, it is about learning to live with it and I am not sure that message is getting across.

3. We need to start having conversations about what is and what isn't mental illness. What is the difference between sadness and depression? When is anxiety before an event that makes you uncomfortable OK and when is it something you need to find help for? It feels to me like we are too scared to have these conversations, too scared to be honest with someone and say it as it really is. Unfortunately, depression and anxiety are words that have become all too easily touted around to describe the ups and downs of normal behaviour or the acceptable levels of anxiety that we all feel when trying something new. I am not saying that we should ever lessen someone's feelings, but we need to be honest.

4. We need to make this conversation feel more normal. Here is what I see at the schools where I work. Some use mental illness as an excuse and some even admit to it - "Oh, I haven't studied, so I'll just throw a panic attack!" Others use symptoms in some sort of strange one-upmanship game - "Well, I have A, B and C so I must be worse than you". It is incredible. It's like we haven't found a collective voice yet to speak about such important yet intricate issues. We have a very top-down approach from adults to young people, which seems pretty ineffective at present.

I personally think that the answer lies in young people speaking about this themselves, outside of any government-funded, adult-run initiative. But what I do know is that they want empowering, relevant, honest and practical conversations, which according to them they are not able to have anywhere other than with certain friends at the moment.

I personally think that the answer lies in young people speaking about this themselves, outside of any government-funded, adult-run initiative. But what I do know is that they want empowering, relevant, honest and practical conversations, which according to them they are not able to have anywhere other than with certain friends at the moment.

I love an idea Bryony Gordon recently come up with called #mentalheathmates, where she meets up with fellow "sufferers" for a walk and empowering talk. This to me feels like a positive step forward and I would love to see us adopting a similar approach with young people.

We must find a way to empower young people in stimulating relevant conversation about mental illness and mental wellbeing that builds them up.