Young people’s mental health is changing. We need new thinking.
Why we need to be more creative in how we support young people with mental health issues.
Alice lost confidence in her appearance and became self-conscious about her weight after being bullied at school.
Regularly feeling low, Alice began to distance herself from friends and restricted her diet as a way of trying to regain control. She told us how “unrealistic images of young people” in the media negatively impacted on her self-esteem: “a lot of it is things you see in magazines like ‘10 steps to losing weight’ or ‘how to look great this summer’, they make you think a certain way.”
Hiding these problems from her parents, Alice found herself increasingly isolated and not knowing which way to turn.
New data shows young people are struggling
Last Thursday saw the publication of comprehensive new NHS data on the mental health of children and young people in England. The report was the first of its kind in over a decade, looking at the extent young people are in contact with various health, social and education services.
We at Addaction release our own data today. This data was extracted from surveys completed as part of Mind and Body, our innovative programme addressing adolescent self harm. There are trends in both reports demonstrating that existing mental health services are overstretched. If we want to properly address this, it’s clear there is a role to play for services sitting outside a traditional clinical setting.
Emotional disorders are rising with young women particularly at risk
Our report shows one in three girls aged 13 to 17 admitted to feeling overwhelmed by worry often or all of the time. 21% said they think about hurting themselves some or all of the time — twice the rate of boys. Anxieties around school work and how they’re perceived by others are also highlighted as areas of concern.
While other mental health disorders have actually remained fairly stable, the last decade has seen a clear increase in the prevalence of emotional disorders. This rise is evident in both boys and girls but it is with the latter where findings are of particular concern.
Young women especially are highlighted as a high risk group. 22.4% of 17 to 19 year olds are categorised as having an emotional disorder, characterised by feelings of fear, worry, sadness, loss of interest and energy, and low self-esteem.
Social media is affecting adolescent mental health
There is a clear trend that demonstrates emotional disorders increase with age as childhood progresses. There are also some telling statistics around behaviours, lifestyles and identities suggesting why this might be the case.
Young people struggling most include those who spend longer on social media, those who compared themselves to others online and who worried about the number of ‘likes’ they got on these platforms.
We know from our work with young people that life online can be a double-edged sword. It offers great connectivity to a range of social groups but these interactions carry pressures which in turn can impact negatively on self esteem, body image and wellbeing in general.
We need to look for solutions beyond traditional services
In an increasingly digital world and with so much focus on academic success, there’s little sign these pressures will be alleviated any time soon. The simple truth is that there’s far more needed than can be offered by existing mental health services. With that in mind, I believe a broader approach is essential if we are to reverse the trend of rising emotional disorders in young people.
It’s arguable that more of the upstream work that’s required actually fits far better within schools, the wider community and the voluntary sector. They are generally more accessible and often have existing relationships with young people. If allowed the necessary time and resources, getting young people to access this support early should reduce demand at the acute end of service delivery.
Alice was able to access Mind and Body through her school. She focused on understanding her feelings and developing more positive coping strategies. Speaking with her peers in the group sessions helped her open up to her parents, providing much needed extra support. She admits that she still has “good days and bad days” but Alice now has the tools to face her issues and is more accepting of herself and others.
While crisis support necessitates specialist therapists, the 2017 Green Paper is clear that evidence-based treatments for mild to moderate levels of mental health disorder can be highly effective, if delivered by trained non-clinical staff with adequate supervision. Our outcomes at Mind and Body are proof of this.
We can give young people the right support and strategies to help them manage their wellbeing into the future.
But for this to work, greater investment in prevention and early intervention is crucial.