Young People's Mental Health: Telling a Different Story

27/09/2016 11:12
Tara Wolff via Getty Images

In our Conservative led, austerity Britain, young people's social needs simply aren't recognised or prioritised. Our education system has become detrimental for young people's self esteem and mental health. The constant striving for higher standards is creating increased levels of stress on young people, with less time dedicated to the very subjects (art, drama, music and sport etc.) that can enable them to express their feelings or provide an outlet for the pressure they feel. And don't even get me started on the proposals for Grammar Schools!

As you can probably tell, I'm unashamedly passionate about this stuff. I'm the Artistic Director of Zest Theatre, a company that specialise in making work for young people. We felt we needed to respond in the only way we knew how - make a show about it. Here are some pretty shocking facts to kick us off: Stats gathered by YoungMinds show that 3 children in every class suffer with a diagnosable mental health disorder. Over the last decade the number of young people admitted to hospital because of self-harm has increased 68%. Nearly 80,000 young people suffer with depression and the number of young people aged 15-16 with depression has nearly doubled between the 1980's and 2000s.

Other stats are equally as alarming: In the 1960s the average onset age for depression was 45; today it is 14. Anxiety in under 21s is increasing. Hospitalisations for eating disorders and self-harm have doubled in the last three years.

Then there's social media. Our teenage years are some of our most formative; it's a time where we are still discovering so much about ourselves and our place in the world. At this stage most young people haven't yet developed the ability to really communicate the kinds of complex feelings or emotions we're talking about here. They can therefore be left feeling like they are the only one who feels like they do, especially when comparing the blooper reel inside their own minds to everybody else's highlights on social media. This constant upward comparison causes some to feel crushed on a daily basis.

Then, add poverty and youth unemployment to the mix, whilst simultaneously giving child and adolescent mental health services a £85m budget cut since 2010, and you quickly cook up the stats at the top of this blog.

But a piece of theatre? How is that going to make a blind bit of difference? In the face of such huge statistics I can understand that argument. But the arts are one of the things can actively help young people deal with this stuff head on. Art can bring insight, prompt discussion and, in the case of our new show Thrive, portray the emotional stuff that young people can find impossible to communicate. We wanted to tell a different story, a story of hope in the face of adversity.

Thrive shows us how can you face difficult things but come to the other end a stronger, more hopeful person. The production follows three young people who get thrown together by the sudden death of a mutual friend. We collaborated with Dr Roger Bretherton, a Senior Lecturer at University of Lincoln, who specialises in an area of psychological research called Post Traumatic Growth - the positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. In the show we place the audience in the middle of the set with the actors speaking directly to them. Thrive helps audiences confront stressful situations, portraying the most challenging of emotions with courage and optimism. We want to empower our audiences to grab life with both hands, find strength in the face of adversity and ultimately, thrive.

But let's be clear, this isn't naive or trite; we're not trivializing pain or glossing over the problems. Our characters go through real pain and will never forget what they felt and the friend they lost. But that pain doesn't have to be the end of their story. When they leave the stage at the end of the show they are sadder but they're also wiser, vulnerable yet more courageous, softer of heart but stronger in spirit. Hope can be a part of our story too.

The Post Traumatic Growth model shows us that tackling our demons can actually build resilience. We want audiences to know that our most testing times needn't hold us back; instead we can use them to become stronger, more compassionate and more perseverant. Thrive shows us that mental health is a journey, not a final destination. Because the situations we face, or diagnoses we receive, needn't define us; instead they can become the first chapter of a new story, the beginning of a more hopeful future.

Zest Theatre are about to embark on their Autumn tour (4th Oct - 13th Oct). For further information please visit: