It's true: young people are finding life harder. They are experiencing more long term mental health problems, according to a major new research study.
This study focuses on England, Scotland and Wales, and supports recent findings in Australia, where, for instance, 22.8% of young people aged 15 to 19 show the symptoms of probable serious mental illness, up from 18.7% in five years.
The UK research finds a 'striking increase in the reported prevalence of long-standing mental health conditions since 1995.'
Other studies have found increases in teenage girls self-harming, teenage suicides and demand for university counselling services.
Researcher Dougal Hargreaves summarises: 'We found a striking, six-fold increase in how many children and young people in England reported having a long-standing mental health condition between 1995 and 2014 (from 0.8% to 4.8%). And among young adults between 16 and 24, there was an even larger, 10-fold increase – from 0.6% to just under 6%.'
Media reports, as so often, leapt straight to the obvious, common sense (but not necessarily evidence-based) conclusion, with the UK Daily Telegraph leading with: 'Mental health problems among the young have risen six-fold since the rise of social media platforms.'
This angle of course suits the Telegraph's politics - modern things (newfangled computers) bad; old ways (discipline, order, not cheeking your elders) good, and confirms the prejudices of its ageing, conservative readership. You can almost hear the splutters and tuts.
It also conveniently ignores the old adage that 'correlation does not imply causation' - ie, just because these things (increased mental health problems; the rise of social media) happen at the same time, that doesn't mean they are connected, let alone that social media has caused the mental health problem. There may be a cause-and-effect relationship, but the evidence is not there. (The headline also confuses the result for England with the combined results for England, Scotland and Wales.)
WHAT'S BEHIND ALL THIS?
The researchers themselves, however, point to a more complex set of factors, noting that many factors have been proposed:
social and economic changes leading to a lengthening of dependence on parents and delay in reaching more adult levels of autonomy;
the penetration of cyberbullying into all parts of young people’s lives;
a more highly pressurised school culture;
cuts in services;
an increasing proportion of children growing up in poverty.
One might also point to more awareness of youth mental health problems both among services and young people themselves. There is greater awareness and less stigma and reluctance at all levels when it comes to talking about mental health problems - and that's a good thing, though it can also result in a skewing of the figures.
So while it may be a mistake to rush to judgment as to the causes of this distress, we certainly need to take seriously the conclusion that young people are doing it tougher.
Lay this alongside an even more dramatic and frightening finding: college students have 40% less empathy than they did just 30 years ago. (And that was in 2010 - anyone want to bet that the trend has been reversed or even flattened out since?)
SO WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT ALL THIS?
The societal factors proposed by the researchers as potentially at play here - kids staying dependent longer; cyberbullying; greater pressures at school; cuts in services; increased poverty - may feel overwhelming and just too massive to tackle, though of course we must do what we can to fight inequality and protect young children.
The flipside, though, is more promising. If we can't shield young people from the modern world, we can help them to shield themselves. How? By increasing their resilience - that ability to bounce back from negative events, experiences and feelings.
The Resilience Research Centre helpfully lists factors that can build and develop resilience. In terms of relationships it includes
parenting that meets the child's needs;
appropriate emotional expression and parental monitoring within the family;
the presence of a positive mentor and role models;
meaningful relationships with others at school and at home;
perceived social support;
peer group acceptance.
In terms of developing the individual's resilience ways to increase resilience include building:
being able to live with uncertainty;
perceived social support;
a positive outlook;
empathy for others;
having goals and aspirations;
showing a balance between independence and dependence on others;
appropriate use of or abstinence from substances like alcohol and drugs;
a sense of humour;
a sense of duty (to others or self, depending on the culture).
(I'm sure it would amuse the readers and writers of the Daily Telegraph that so many of these are 'traditional' values that used to be installed through such experiences as military conscription and a clip round the ear from the local copper!)
If your child is anxious or struggling to cope, Hypnotherapy can help by providing coping skills and building resilience. Call me on 0423 793887 to discuss how your child could benefit.