As a parent but also as someone who has worked for more than 35 years to improve mental health I feel that it is time that we accept our fundamental failure as a generation to adequately protect the mental health of our young people. We are currently relinquishing responsibility by suggesting that the deteriorating mental health of this next generation is in some way their own fault, unfairly describing them as the ‘snowflake generation’. However, as adults we are responsible for creating the adverse conditions that we are expecting them to grow up into. What has been well observed is that signs of distress in young people are rising from self-harm rates in school aged children to the concerning trends in emotional difficulties being experienced by girls. For many young people this distress will grow into adult mental health problems with three quarters of these being established by the age of 24. If we do nothing other than focus on providing services after the harm has been done, then we will have created a crisis that will reverberate across society for many generations to come. This is definitely not a legacy I want to have played any role in creating.
So why are young people experiencing such poor mental health outcomes? In our latest Mental Health Foundation report, Stress – Are We Coping?, we found that this generation feel that they are experiencing multiple pressures to succeed – be it exam stress, relationships or the way they look. Added to this the report shockingly pointed to the extent of the problem with 39% of young people surveyed having experienced suicidal feelings and 29% saying that they have self-harmed. As an organisation we have been interested, for some time in the mental health of young people by way of considering how to prevent the onset of what for too many can become life-long or life-limiting mental health problems in adulthood. But what I now realise is that we need to not only focus on those long-term outcomes but on the immediate distress that young people are experiencing. It is also something I have given much thought to personally following the suicide of one of my son’s closest friends at 18. Dylan was just embarking on his life and had a supportive family at home and a good group of friends. So, what left him in such a dark place and what is going so wrong for young people?
In answer to this I think our report managed to pry the lid open on an important issue that has not been given the public health attention it deserves in finding that 47% of young people aged 18-24 have felt so stressed by body image and appearance that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. And 49% stated that comparing themselves to others was a source of stress – higher than any other age group. Dylan himself was at the sharp end of the spectrum of body dissatisfaction having a condition that is often misunderstood – body dysmorphia where his negative body image and anxiety about the way others perceived him caused him much distress. At a moment in time when there is growing public mental health awareness it is important to question why young people like Dylan find it is so difficult to talk about these issues. I think at the heart of it is this issue of social comparison – of the need to fit in. Beyond the stigma surrounding mental ill-health, the shame of saying you feel different in a world where so many young people are being made to feel they should all look and behave the same must feel overwhelming.
With this in mind, it is particularly alarming to see the growth of reality TV programmes such as Love Island where young people are subjected nightly to images of the perfect body. An image that is unachievable for most of the population. In shows such as these people are carefully selected for being ‘hot’, leaving people with the message that to be popular – to fit in, you need to aspire to this level of ‘hotness’. Further adding to this distorted view of reality is the strategically placed cosmetic surgery advertising that appears during the commercial break.
What message does this give young people? If you aren’t currently ‘hot’ then you need to alter yourself to get there. Giving the advertisers the benefit of the doubt you could ascertain that they are only doing their job selling their produce to those most likely to purchase. However, the parent in me feels that they have given this more thought and see this as an opportunity to capitalise on our young people’s insecurities for commercial gain. So if the ad guys get it, why are the rest of us ‘responsible’ adults being so intently unobservant.