It's hardly a secret that teenagers are prone to mood swings to a degree quite unlike any other demographic - the combination of hormone rushes, puberty and the general confusion that accompanies transitioning from child to adult is prone to make even the most level-headed person come undone occasionally. There are times, however, where in our haste to attribute black days to teenage angst, we overlook behaviour that would be a sure-fire warning sign of mental illness in an older person.
When you are young, seeking help for mental health problems can be easily as frightening as the problems themselves. Your options are limited to three main areas; parents, school and the doctor. In reality, however, it is nigh-on impossible to get help without the consent and knowledge of your parents while you are under the age of sixteen. Many schools do not have a full-time counsellor, and while those that do may offer a certain level of confidentiality, the idea that the counsellor has a certain responsibility to the child's parents generally has more leverage over what is shared than the child's wishes. CAMHS, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, are the NHS specialist services that deal with thousands of young people struggling with mental health issues every year, but again, a referral to their team usually requires parental consent - and can take an extremely long time regardless. Easy though it may be to advise young people to communicate with their parents when struggling with a suspected mental illness, the truth is that presupposing a level of comfortable discourse between them and their legal guardians effectively cuts them off from accessing support for what could potentially be years.
Information about mental illnesses is not part of the school curriculum and consequently many students suffer symptoms of one problem or another without even knowing that anything could be seriously wrong. Although articles I have written in the past about PHSE and its failure to give practical and usable advice on the issues of sex and drug education have been met with the protestation that such subjects have no place in an academic setting, the fact remains that around one in three children in every class will or do suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. Without education, the assumption that there is a vague, one-size-fits-all face that one can give to depression or anxiety or an eating disorder reigns supreme, leaving those who do not associate with the prototype confused and alone. The opportunity for kids to recognise symptoms of mental illness in their peers is lost, and the chance for those suffering to understand that what they are going through is not an inexplicable personal failure never occurs. With half of all adults with mental disorders having been diagnosed in childhood - and less than half having been given appropriate treatment - it seems bizarre that schools do not offer even a basic explanation of what mental illnesses are to the people who need it most.
More than anything else, being young and mentally ill is lonely. If the topic is taboo for adults, it is doubly so for young people, whose entire existences revolve around hiding perceivable weaknesses from those around them. While well-meaning elders may seek to console young people by telling them that their feelings are completely normal, having constant, unending bad feeling belittled as hormones and teenage angst at a young age can inadvertently prevent help being sought later on in life. Although it may be natural to attribute a child's dark moods to the trials of growing older and hesitate from allowing seemingly hyperbolic shows of moodiness to define anything other than a bad day, the result is that all too often these feelings are brushed aside without a second thought.
There is no immediate solution to the problem of young people and mental illnesses. Petitions have been started to try and bring the issue into schools, and there are multiple campaigns to raise awareness of the issue. 2013 has actually been an unusually good year in representing young people with mental illnesses in the media, with 'My Mad Fat Diary', 'Don't Call Me Crazy' and 'Girls' being amongst the most popular programs to feature honest appraisals of teenagers and young adults struggling with mental health issues. May Gabriel's It's Ok Campaign is a site set up to provide refreshingly frank blog posts and advice about being a young person in the mental health system and has enjoyed a fair amount of recognition from people such as Stephen Fry. Prospective UCL Philosophy student Grace Hunt set up the blog YOUNG/SILENT to document the voices of those who need an outlet, stating that 'our experience has strength as a collaborative whole... it cannot be ignored'. There are people out there fighting for the young people who struggle with mental illness, whether treated or otherwise, and their efforts should not go unnoticed.
Honest representation in this vein is vitally important in order to strike the balance between normalisation and trivialisation; between glamorising and stigmatising. Such spaces may not provide an outright cure in themselves, but providing a voice for those who feel alone can be a vitally important act. For lack of proper treatment and medical support, the most helpful thing we can offer young people with mental health issues is a non-judgemental quiet in which to express themselves - and more importantly, to listen to what they are saying.
Useful websites and helplines:
Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 08457 90 90 90
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
Students Against Depression, a website by students, for students.
HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41
Mental Wealth UK To join the community or launch a student group contact the charity on firstname.lastname@example.org