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No Wonder Young People Aren't Engaged - They've Got Nothing To Vote For

19/05/2017 17:00
BrianAJackson via Getty Images

It's the General Election that's meant to define a generation. To set the roadmap for the future of our country outside the EU. To build the foundations for a better tomorrow. So with just three weeks until the polls, why are our politicians so reluctant to address the young people - our future leaders, parents and wealth generators - who will form the bedrock of a post-Brexit Britain?

Cynics might say it's because appealing to young people doesn't translate into votes. This is true in the sense that disaffection doesn't carry currency in a modern democracy, but we must look at the wider context. This is the generation that has borne the brunt of trebled tuition fees, a recession-driven jobs drought, stagnating wages, plus severe cuts to education and other key services. Having had such a rough hand already and been once again overlooked in the party manifestos, it's little wonder less than half of 18- to 24-year-olds are likely to vote in this election.

Young people need better jobs and education policies, but none of this will matter unless we take better care of their health. With so much of our country's fortunes entwined with the fate of the NHS, promoting physical, mental and social health must be the cornerstone of any policy setting up our young people to succeed. Today's young people are the least active generation ever and this is having a serious knock-on effect in terms of mental health issues. With suicide the leading cause of death among males aged 20 to 49, there is clearly a need for greater focus on the health of young people across all fronts.

The importance of this agenda is why we - not-for-profit health body ukactive and leading young people's charity The Mix - are working together and make this joint call to the main political parties to pledge greater focus on both the physical and mental wellbeing of our young people. It's time to stop playing politics with the health of our nation's children.

Making physical activity the beating heart of Britain's health strategy is key to this. Described as a miracle cure by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, physical activity helps to treat, manage and prevent up to 20 lifestyle conditions including heart disease, type-2 diabetes and various cancers. Crucially, an active lifestyle also brings major benefits to mental health. From enhancing people's mood, to reducing stress and improving self-esteem, physical activity plays a crucial role in mental wellbeing and can cut the risk of depression - a growing issue among young people - by a third.

As we've seen from The Mix's work with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's Heads Together campaign - particularly at the recent London Marathon - the fun and fulfilment of an active lifestyle can have a transformative impact on young people's mental health.

Take Lane for example, a 16-year-old from Cornwall who is a regular user of The Mix services. Two years ago Lane was diagnosed with Anxiety, OCD, and BDD (body dysmorphic disorder) and often woke up dreading what the day would bring. Frustrated and confused, Lane turned to exercise as a means for calming his mind.

"Exercise initially was just a way to take back some control over my decisions but it has turned out to be much more than that," says Lane. "I feel like exercise is an important key to mental resilience and health. It relieves stress, improves memory, helps me sleep better, and boosts my overall mood. And the best part is I can do it almost any time I feel the need to."

Stories like Lane's are increasingly common among users of The Mix. We know that physical activity can be a powerful antidote to mental health conditions and could save millions through earlier interventions, so why not bring this into our GP care pathways? A recent World Health Organisation study found that the number of young people given antidepressants increased by more than 50 per cent in the last seven years, despite National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) state the drugs should not be used to treat mild depression in children. Isn't it time we made greater use of exercise as a means of protecting young people from a lifetime of reliance on prescription pills?

As ever, the answer is far from simple, but the need for action is clear. Parties in this election should commit to not only prioritising policies that will support our young people to be healthy and active, but also ensure that due diligence is undertaken across all policies to ensure these goals are not compromised. A clear start for the next government should be making good on the last parliament's pledge to invest £1.4m into mental health services in schools and exploring how to offer more dedicated support beyond the school gates. Whether they're voters or not, it's time to start giving young people a greater stake in their future.

Steven Ward is CEO of ukactive
Chris Martin is CEO of The Mix

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