ULTIMATELY, the way we talk about mental health in this country will influence our potential for mental health promotion, suicide prevention, and help-seeking in a crisis. The way we frame mental health will also influence the experience of those amongst us who are in distress and are dealing with serious mental health difficulty.
In recent years, the conversation on mental health has switched to the whole population and within that, much of our attention is on young people. This is mostly a positive culture shift.
ReachOut Ireland has had the privilege of gaining insights into the issues that impact young people through our day-to-day work online, through annual user surveys, focus groups and through two large-scale online surveys (engaging over 8,000 young people) in the past two years.
In the recent survey we conducted with the Irish Examiner, a third of teenagers rated their mental health as good, one third rated it as poor and the rest were in the middle. Absolutely nothing groundbreaking to report there.
The key issues highlighted included body image, peer pressure, school, exams, mobile phones and time.
Time, or rather the lack of it, was a major concern related to a sense of constantly feeling under pressure. When asked to select issues that were a cause of stress, 81% of teenagers cited exams and 80% selected school.
Body image was selected as a source of stress by 72% of teenagers and social media by 43%.
The responses to our open question on views on mental health resonated with our general survey findings and gave us really important insights into the issues that are impacting young people.
Strong themes included a frustration with the way we are talking about mental health; the stress associated with our “always on” culture and the omnipresence of social media; and, the fundamental importance of the school or college experience.
All of these issues are connected. Social media has the power to amplify public discourse and many young people are frustrated by the amount of talk around mental health.
One young person suggested: “There’s too much awareness of mental health sometimes. You need an escape from negativity and sometimes that’s not possible because depression/suicide is practically everywhere.”
According to another young person: “It [mental health] is both over emphasised and under resourced, paradoxically.”
It is really important to note that most of the young people who expressed frustration with our national conversation on mental health, reported that they had personal mental health difficulties.
It might be the case that those with the most mental health need feel lost or swallowed up in the general clamour to embrace the issue, which is far more accessible now through campaigns like the #littlethings and the Green Ribbon awareness campaign.
Apart from the power to amplify public messaging, social media plays an important role in shaping our personal identity and our relationships with others. One young person in our most recent survey suggested: “Social media has created a false sense of what is right and what is wrong. I feel like teenagers are forced to alter themselves and reach unrealistic expectations because they’re only seeing good things someone’s posting about their lives on Facebook or Instagram.”
However, social media clearly connects people to each other and to supports as well, so the relationship between social media and mental health is complicated.
The relationship between school and mental health is also complicated. In our search for solutions to the challenge of promoting youth mental health and preventing suicidal behaviour, school is a key setting.
But, we have a lot of negative testimony from young people on both schools and colleges, as less than healthy and supportive environments.
Our 2015 colleges research (involving four focus groups and an online survey of 5,556 students) found support services on campus were not accessible or for everyone.
As one student put it: “You can feel like you’re wasting their time if you’re just going for something that’s not like a death or something really serious, you’re just going for exam stress.”
In our more recent survey, of teenagers, a significant volume of comments (school was mentioned 400 times) expressed anger, upset and even hatred in relation to the school experience.
Yet, despite considerable negativity, it is within those settings that real opportunity exists to impact positive culture change and improve mental health.
In September, Wellbeing will begin as an area of learning within the junior cycle of the secondary school curriculum. There is some debate about this new part of the curriculum, which is planned to grow to 400 hours of classroom time within two years of its introduction.
There is some understandable nervous anticipation as to content, emphasis and the resources to implement it successfully. For some, the idea of ‘wellbeing’ as an area of learning seems wrong — is it something you can teach?
Regardless, the ‘Wellbeing Guidelines’ produced by the NCCA assert that “this area of learning will make the school’s culture and ethos and commitment to wellbeing visible to students”. Many students need convincing of this so this is a vital objective.
Moreover, the development of short courses for the Wellbeing curriculum covering Digital Media Literacy and Philosophy, for example, suggests a real opportunity to engage in the development of critical thinking with young students.
Such a broad approach to wellbeing can make a significant, positive difference. In all of this though, it must be remembered that the promotion of life skills to enhance wellbeing is only one aspect of the challenge we face in supporting youth mental health in Ireland.
This is an important positive step. But young people faced with societal barriers to better mental health and young people feeling increasingly isolated in their personal battles with mental health difficulty must not be forgotten about in the context of the whole population approach to wellbeing and our mental health.