"Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind."
― Henry James
A problem shared is a problem halved. So goes the old adage. So why do so many of us find it so very difficult to confide in others about our difficulties? To tell other people that we might be feeling depressed, anxious, or even suicidal?
Rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years, and the number of children and young people turning up in A&E with a psychiatric condition has more than doubled since 2009. Surveys also suggest this problem is particularly prevalent amongst teenage girls and amongst children and young people looked after by the social care system.
On being understood
The feeling of really being understood by another person when we are at our most vulnerable should be a positive one, and yet it can feel extremely difficult, shaming even, to tell others that we can't cope with life. For a significant amount of young people, presenting a coping, confident front is what they have been taught to be essential for survival, for making a success of themselves in life. Even showing positive feelings can be frowned upon in some families where it isn't the norm to talk about or share emotions.
The first hurdle to overcome, then, is recognising that expressing and talking about feelings is a good thing. The second may be more difficult: admitting to ourselves that we have a problem. The third is to seek out other people who we think might actually want to listen.
On staying connected
Belonging and feeling socially included are powerful feelings which, left unmet, have deleterious physical, mental, and academic effects. Schools are an ideal setting to encourage children and young people to talk to each other and to trusted adults about feelings, and many schools have great initiatives to do just this. For example, primary schools who are twinned with a school in a developing country and where classes watch daily video diaries of a peer in another country.
There seems to be an acceptance that it's OK to leave teenagers in their bedrooms, because that's just what they do. "They'll be fine". They won't be fine! There is in fact overwhelming evidence (e.g. Hall-Lande et al., 2007) that social isolation is associated with higher depressive symptoms, and that perceived loneliness in children aged 7-16 is associated with sadness and anxiety
As adolescence is a period of especially high risk for loneliness, and young people spend a large amount of their awake time in schools, it would seem essential that schools put more focus on the importance of social relationships and productive, positive communication amongst peers than solely on exam performance. Schools are an ideal context for practicing and promoting healthy relationships and social skills and particularly to offer a space for talking about difficulties that all young people will experience to some degree.
On taking Time to Talk
Many people will have been brought up to believe that if they are in difficulty, they can always talk to a parent, friend, teacher, and they have learned that these trustworthy adults will be there to help them. These people will have an accompanying view of themselves as deserving of this help and attention. In psychological terms, we think of these people as being 'securely attached'.
For many others (just under 40% of the population) who don't have this secure background, it will feel a great deal more difficult to trust that there are people who are interested, willing to listen and who can be helpful. Some of this group (we think of these as being 'avoidant') will have been raised to believe that if they are experiencing a problem, then they need to try to resolve it on their own. These people may present a very competent, controlled front, whilst struggling internally.
Ideally, the culture of talking about feelings, thoughts, hopes and desires starts in the family. We can also think about culture changing at a more macro level, like footballers who set up charities for children and young people, initiatives in schools and communities (like Mark your Mind), the Time to Talk campaign and via social media, which should not be just frowned upon by parents, but seen as a crucial tool for keeping young people connected to a wider network of like-minded people.
So does it matter who children and young people talk to? Needing to talk about a problem doesn't always mean going to see a psychiatrist or therapist. A child might need this, but they might need empathy from someone close. One 16 year old I met said "I would rather die than talk to a therapist about my problems." Some adolescents will feel the same way about talking to their parents about the things that really trouble them, and this would be entirely developmentally normal for the majority of adolescents. The short answer is it doesn't matter who it is. The most important thing is trust. When we feel we can trust someone else, either because of certain qualities they possess, or because they have been through similar experiences, we will feel more able to confide in them as to how we feel.
Start to say the words out loud. Whisper it first and then gain the courage to speak it on it's own terms. Burying it won't hide it.
On the 'important' things
Much has been made of the idea of 'Random Acts of Kindness' since this term was coined in 1993 and there are books devoted to how engaging in these acts will make us feel better and strengthen communities. My own personal difficulty with this concept is it implies this is something we have to consciously engage in, rather than it being a normal part of human behaviour.
The willingness to think about another person, how they might feel or think at any given time, would seem to be based in the concept of empathy for others. That is, if we can turn our minds to the experiences of others, as part of how we just are then being empathic and kind to them will follow naturally. There might be many factors that inhibit us from being empathic, and this can include being preoccupied with our own lives, space and time and our own current sense of well-being.
So join us in with what Henry James calls the most important thing in human life: spreading a little kindness. The Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families has developed a set of illustrated tips to encourage children and young people to 'spread a little kindness' in their schools and at home in support of Children's Mental Health Week. Feel free to use these tips here. From looking out for classmates who may be having a difficult time, listening to how they feel, and if they need it, asking an adult for help, remember the important things in life, and that could make all the difference.