The ReachOut Ireland/ Irish Examiner survey showed there isn’t a ‘shared understanding’ around mental health amongst our teenagers and we should be resourcing young people to support friends, writes Claire O’Sullivan as she analyses the findings.
OVER 60% of Irish teenagers didn’t describe themselves as happy in this week’s IrishExaminer/ ReachOut Ireland survey.
The nationwide study of 2,500 boys and girls, aged 13-19, found that 32% rated their mental health as average while 30% describe it as “poor” or “very poor”.
Only 34% of respondents describe themselves as having “good” or “very good” mental health.
Nearly three quarters of teenagers described the pressure to excel in exams, to be popular in school and have the perfect body as causes of stress in their lives.
Friends, family and boyfriend/girlfriend relationships are the next biggest causes of stress followed then by social media.
Overall teenage boys reported better mental health than teenage girls.
So what did the survey teach us about what teenagers are lacking in their lives and what they need?
“Ultimately, small levels of stress are good, but when we move to more continuous living with stress, then it becomes more problematic,” said Ian Power, executive director of Spunout.ie, the youth information website.
He, like many, was quite taken aback at the depth of frustration around the exam system and school life with four out of five teenagers saying they caused them stress.
“Teachers need to start treating students like the young adults they are and not Leaving Cert point hunters,” said one young person in the survey.
“I wish teachers would praise me for the stuff I am doing right instead of criticising me for the stuff I’ve done wrong,” said another.
Eileen Keane, a mother of four who runs Jumpstart Your Confidence, gives classes on self-esteem to secondary school pupils around the country.
Very often, the young people open up to her about the pressures they face.
“What I see time and time again is that the education system is failing them for life. They’re not being educated on how to live in this world in school, there’s far too much focus on academia and you’re seeing clever children with no street smarts, no cop on,” she said. “There’s no room for creativity in the education system, no room for not being academic. The curriculum is failing this generation.”
Spunout.ie thinks we should look at the German education system which is divided into two, with an academic and a vocational route available. More than half of German students choose the vocational route which means they attend vocational school one or two days a week learning the theory of their trade, eg culinary skills, apprenticeships, IT or engineering skills as well as languages, business skills and social studies. They spend the remainder of the week working in industry, receiving about a third of the salary of a trained skilled worker. Vocational education is strongly backed by industry, the unions and the government.
Ian Power says: “In Germany, parents realise that this is a good career path and industry sees that it creates a workforce developed for industry needs. It is a system that recognises learning in its various ways.”
Dr Emer Smyth, research professor at the ESRI, told the Irish Examiner this week that the widespread exam stress Irish teenagers are suffering is a “a byproduct of an education system that is so exam focussed, a system that is a distortion of what learning should be about”.
The ESRI had suggested a re-assessment of the education system and called for greater supports for teenagers in schools.
She also warned however that “a lot of the pressure that the young people put themselves under is internal as they have a realisation that the Leaving Cert is high stakes. We would have found that the pressure is from within them and not so much from parents or teachers.”
The “non-academic” teenager needs to be served better in this country, says Ian Power. At present, if you want to leave the school system, the only option at present is Youthreach services which he says are “too stigmatised”.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of How to Raise an Adult, believes today’s parents are keenly aware of the increasingly competitive jobs market their offspring are facing and so strive to maximise their children’s accomplishments, seeing them as an indication of their own value. She believes this is is having a direct impact on young people’s mental health.
Indeed, many of the teenagers spoke about being under pressure from teachers and parents, feeling a weight of expectations.
Eileen Keane has heard this too: “Parents need to look at their children individually, at who they actually are and not what they want them to be. I see parents putting their children in boxes that maybe they don’t want to be in. Look and see who they really are and maybe begin to accept that their best is good enough,” she said.
However, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, Dr Aileen Murtagh also believes from her clinical practice that many of the young people “are generating this stress themselves”.
“They set standards very high, getting obsessed with results and the points race. We will see sleep difficulties, anxiety, panic attacks, and even self-harm in people setting very high standards for themselves,” said Dr Murtagh.
She said that her services “consistently” get high levels of referrals from exam year students.
“Each year, we see young people with exam related stress and anxiety from November to June. And in recent years, we have noticed an increase in the run-up to the mock exams as well as the state exams themselves. We see referrals from Junior Cert as well as Leaving Cert students,” she said.
About 72% of the 2,500 teenagers who took part in the survey spoke about body image being a stressor in their lives and that figure rose to 81% when teenage girls alone were questioned. In early teens just 61% of boys and girls said that body image was a cause of stress but by mid-teens, that figure had risen to 74%.
Up to 43% of the young people described social media as causing them difficulties in their lives but in a later open-ended question on mental health in Ireland, many referred to social media and “the need to have a perfect life” as something that made them feel down.
Fiona Flynn is youth development officer with Bodywhys. As part her job, Fiona visits schools a lot to talk about body image and she holds focus groups with teenagers.
“What I hear all the time is that young people feel under a lot of pressure to look a certain way, to have the perfect life, to have a lot of likes when they post online and this pressure is not only coming from social media but also from from magazines, TV, movies. People will tell us ‘My selfie only got three likes, she got 100. Why?’,” she told the Irish Examiner.
“Also who hasn’t liked their posts preys on their mind a lot. They spend so much time thinking about this and about how to get more likes that they spend nowhere near enough time thinking about what they actually like or developing any sense of self which is one of the things that helps build self-esteem.”
Barry Murphy said that as young people become more body conscious many of them, especially girls, often stop participating in sports.
“Again, these are the very activities that will help them build self-esteem,” he said.
Fiona Flynn says that in her school visits she talks to young people about “how the value in a person is not on the outside but in the inside, that it is who they are as a person, their personality, that is their real worth”, she said.
She advises parents to try to build a ‘strong sense of self’ in their children as they grow up to counter the culture of superficiality that predominates.
IN HER school visits, Eileen Keane sees “a tunnel vision” approach to life amongst the kids she coaches. She fears that this is a generation where individuality isn’t championed and where “you have to fit in, to go with the flow, to be the same to be accepted”.
Ian Power agrees. Parents and school need to enforce the belief that “everyone is different and that different is good”, he says.
“People complain about social media but social media is just the vehicle, there are wider issues about how we are approaching young people through parenting, through life skills. We need to teach them to celebrate difference rather than just mindlessly conform. Teenagers need to stop this obsession with perfectionism.”
The research shows while teenagers believed they had a good understanding of mental health, they want to be able to help friends.
Teenagers are most likely to turn to “Dr Google” when first seeking help or information around mental health and as they progress through the teens, they become less likely to seek help with emotional problems from family with some teenagers expressing fears in the survey that family members won’t take their mental health concerns seriously.
“Friends are a vital pillar for help,” said Ian Power. “They want to be supportive and so we should give them strategies to help, teach them that won’t be able to fix their friend’s problem but they can help them by listening and understanding,” he said. Such peer support workshops could form part of the new wellbeing class planned for the Junior Cert cycle next year.
“The research also showed that the teenagers’ awareness of mental health is high but their ‘shared understanding’ is low, perhaps they need to be taught more about how to distinguish between a mental disorder and more mild episodes of depression or anxiety. Work also needs to be done on de-stigmatising psychosis, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder etc.”
Last year, in response to growing concerns around teenage mental health, a ministerial youth mental health task force was established. However, this didn’t carry out a survey of teenagers views on mental health.
According to Mr Power, the ReachOut Ireland/ Irish Examiner survey “should really help inform their ultimate actions”.
“It was a great size sample of young people and it was great to see teenagers so engaged in the subject, clearly teenagers are asking for help and we need to respect this in a more comprehensive way,” he said.
Spunout.ie hopes that wellbeing will be “taught in a way that all young people experience the same consistent education”.
He hopes it doesn’t follow the same route as Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE), “In RSE, it’s a requirement to follow the curriculum but it is left up to individual schools to provide it in their own way and therefore its delivery is patchy. We would really hope that the Department of Education have learnt from that,” he said.
Spunout.ie believes that the Irish Examiner/ReachOut Ireland research clearly shows that mental health helplines are a waste of time with just 7% of teenagers likely to use them.
“It makes sense that they won’t use them. They don’t make a phonecall to order a taxi or pizza. They don’t make a phone call to chat to their friend. Why would they talk about their feelings with a stranger on a phone?” he said.
He believes a mental health support text or what’s app-based service could work well in this country.
In the US, Crisis Text Line has exchanged about 33m text messages in three years with its users, who can text with a trained volunteer when they are feeling low or unsure of themselves.
ONE school that has poured resources into mental health and wellbeing is Kinsale Community School in Co Cork. When children enter the school in first year, they are told they have three rights: The right to be happy,the right to learn and the right to be different.
Kinsale is one of eight schools nationwide that piloted a DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) programme for transition year pupils which teaches teenagers basic skills in emotional problem solving. It was so successful that they have continued it beyond the initial pilot project.
It is delivered in association with CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) and the National Educational Psychology Service (NEPS).
“As part of the Steps-A programme, the children are taught skills around regulating emotions, decision making, problem solving. Over the year, they take part in 30 lessons on goal-setting, analytical thinking, mindfulness, stress tolerance, emotional regulation, interpersonal skills and the difference in approach by the end of the year is incredible,” said school principal Fergal McCarthy.
Deputy principal at the school, Kathleen O’Brien believes that life is far more complex these days and that children need more supports.
“Life is more complex and the children have a lot more demands on them. Family structure is not as homogenous as it was, so much of their life takes place online and everyone in the family is more pressurised for time. We are living in a busier world and parents too often struggle with competing demands,” she says.
Kinsale also places a strong emphasis on its pastoral care system and works closely with the student council and prefects to ensure pupils’ needs are being met.
Weekly student support meetings take place where the principal, deputy principal, year heads, guidance counsellors and special educational needs teachers meet up to identify children at risk and work in a targeted holistic way with these children.
Children can need extra support due to family breakdown, anxiety, depression, social anxiety or eating disorders. Some children are referred to specialist counselling and the school has been able to support that.
They also run a ‘Friends for Life’ SPHE programme in junior cycle and do a lot of work with Kinsale Youth Support Services (KYSS) to ensure that there are mental health supports in place in the community too.
Derek Chambers, the CEO of ReachOut Ireland, says such “whole school” approaches are to be welcomed and that ReachOut’s research suggests that the wellbeing curriculum is badly needed.
“It was clear that teenagers felt the school setting should be utilised more to help prepare students for life and not just for the Leaving Cert/academic achievement and in this context, the introduction of the wellbeing curriculum will be a welcome one. It is recommended that ‘mental health’ is prioritised and resourced as part of this,” he said.
“Interested teachers should also be resourced and supported in learning more about the issue of youth mental health with a view to encouraging such teachers to champion a ‘whole-school’ approach to positive mental health”.
Like Spunout.ie, he believes there isn’t a “shared understanding” around mental health amongst teenagers.
“In order to move on from celebrating the fact that we are talking about mental health, emphasis should be placed on how we are talking about mental health.
“One practical recommendation is to ensure that all media coverage in all formats includes links to quality assured mental health organisations, supports and/or resources. Friends are also a huge part of teenagers’ lives. While they are a cause of stress, they are also a key source of support. We should be educating and resourcing young people to support their friends and to know how to get support from an adult when they need it”.
IT’S NOT usually possible to completely remove stress from young people’s lives. Besides, we wouldn’t want to because a small amount of stress can be good, helping with study for example and keeping them alert.
There are ways to help manage stress so that it doesn’t begin to spiral out of control.
Make sure to try to model these behaviours as well. Often as a parent, what you do can be more effective than what you say.
Methods of dealing with stress and anxiety Young people can decrease stress with the following behaviours and techniques, which parents can model and encourage.
Copyright ReachOut Ireland
Listening to teenagers is enormously important and, according to spunout.ie, it is something that many Irish are not naturally good at.
Here’s how to be a good listener when your son, daughter or friend wants to talk:
Don’t interrupt — Give the person the space to talk about their concerns.
Be present and keep eye contact — Let them know you are there for them.
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