As a parent of four, not least of a young man with mental health problems, I have read recent headlines with interest, concern and despair.
But not for the reasons you might think.
We are facing a crisis in child - and particularly teen - mental health in the UK. A recent Guardian article stated:-
"Children and teenagers are facing an “intolerable” mental health crisis and an urgent cash injection is needed in schools to prevent a lifetime of damage, teachers, doctors and MPs have warned.”
But what actually IS the mental health reality in our young people, and what can we do about it? Is the “Mental Health Crisis” a recognition of pre-existent, long-standing issues, or a new phenomenon? Are we failing our children, or struggling to respond to a new, previously unseen problem which is escalating in our society? Should schools be doing more - or are parents the root cause? Or is Social Media to blame?
The reality may surprise you.
The teenage brain is a fragile thing. We now understand that between age 11-14 the brain is still physically growing. However it doesn’t finish maturing until our late 20s and the front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last brain regions to mature. It is the area responsible for planning, prioritising and controlling impulses. No amount of discipline or eye rolling on the part of parents or teachers is going to rush this process, and crucially the teenage brain is primed ready to learn from experience. And this is fundamentally important if we want to learn from, and turn around the mental health crisis amongst teenagers in the UK.
The Mental Health Foundation states:-
“Mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people. They include depression, anxiety and conduct disorder, and are often a direct response to what is happening in their lives. ”
Many mental health disorders appear during adolescence. All the big changes the brain is experiencing may explain why disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and schizophrenia emerge during this time. but the teenage brain is surprisingly resilient - if we are willing to work with it - not against it. Vulnerable yes, but not without resilience. And yet despite this accepted knowledge recent changes in education, society and family life are actively reducing the chances of so many of our teenagers travelling through this all-important time unscathed. I watch, listen to and despair with the many teens I know as the mismanagement of their lives pushes them down paths they do not need to go.
Almost all children want to please, want to engage and possess all the necessary attributes for success. However our persistent attempts to define, reduce and distil our concept of success moves this achievable goal out of reach for too many. Success comes in many forms, for me as a mum it’s actually quite simple though - health and happiness.
It really IS that simple.
Or perhaps I should say MENTAL health and happiness, because we DO have a degree of control over the mental wellbeing of most of our children.
I was genuinely shocked to read that schools are being urged to put more support in place to reduce the mental health difficulties so many students are facing. Why shocked you may ask? Because many of these problems are CAUSED by schools, the school environment, and by the education system itself. Putting support in place is like medicating for a perceived problem, but the new medication causes side effects so you add in another medication to treat those side effects. But what if the original problem was caused by the environment, instead of having an organic origin? You should really address the environment, remove the problem and thereby the need for any medication.
As long as we reclassify ability, re-evaluate attainment and perpetually raise the bar, we raise the chance of subjective “failure” and the impact that has on our youth. Recent GCSE changes are not a bad idea per se, but just amplify the pressure on schools to “raise standards” and meet successive government targets. In a closed system, that pressure has to go somewhere - and it does. It’s transferred on to pupils, with schools anxiously telling pupils as young as 11 that their GCSEs are on the horizon and they need to work hard.
Let me be completely clear about this. Telling a pre-pubescent child about national exams taken at 16, making them loom large as a monstrous fear on the horizon; is theft and abuse. Theft, because you remove their childhood, their innocence and most importantly their focus on the present; and abuse because you transfer your fears as a parent, educator or administrator on to those powerless to do anything about it. Children embarking on years of brain rewiring cannot plan that far ahead. They cannot prepare for and have no control over future events, yet they are being handed a worry they have absolutely no chance of managing. More importantly, their mental resilience relies on optimism, on living in the moment, not fearing for the future. So why do we do it?
Because we are scared ourselves.
The irony here is that we are micromanaging our children's futures because we ourselves feel helpless. Unable to control the world we are bringing our children up in, we transfer our anxieties onto the next generation. Borne out of adult insecurity because we ourselves cannot control the worrying trends in society.
It’s widely acknowledged that children should only worry about things they have control over. For everything else, they have adults. So yes, forgetting your swimming kit should cause mild concern, and increased effort to remember it next time, but preparing for external qualifications you barely understand should not even be on your radar. Stress and anxiety come from feelings of loss of control - and many will tell you mental health disorders are borne of feelings of lack of control. We should be teaching our children that whilst it’s useful to worry about the things in life they CAN change, anything else is a waste of time, and the same is largely true for us as adults in a complex world. Because adults are in a similar situation, feeling out of control for similar reasons and are transferring this to our children.
The rise of social media has seen a 24/7 intrusion into our children’s lives. There is no such thing as privacy, yet the irony is teens are becoming more isolated. Staring at a phone screen, communication is being reduced to superficial interaction and our teens are painfully lonely. Aware of this but unable to help, we try and increase OUR control over them in a feedback loop which helps no one. Gone are the days of hanging out at the Rec after school, getting a Saturday job with ease and finding solidarity with friends at local clubs and groups. Too many teens are facing increased pressure to achieve, becoming socially isolated yet believing hope lies in the number of “likes” on social media platforms. We are all as lost as each other, and layers of response will not tackle the underlying problem.
Adults need to accept the changing world and face up to it. With college, university and employment opportunities at a premium we need to diversify and recognise talent we might previously have dismissed. Accept ALL results are as much to do with the administration and teaching as the application and ability of the student. And most importantly, focus on community and mental health as a priority over all.
Perhaps the most important message we can give our children then is of adult fallibility, of multiple chances, choices and opportunities. That the criteria of success will always change over time, and doing what makes you happy, what you excel at is far, far more valuable as a long time goal. That we as grown ups struggle with the the world, making sense of it and planning for the future - but together we are stronger, and we will all look out for each other. Please don't define your child at a time they are trying to discover themselves.
The youth of today will have many lives, many opportunities and chances that they cannot even know about yet. Public exams are only one - one route amongst many. Yes they matter, and yes they should give them their very best shot, but must absolutely not let any one event define or limit them. School is just one path in the complex web of life and there will be others, so many others. If you went on a journey and the road was blocked, would you go home? No, you might curse then try a different way. That's all these life events are, a test in map reading the Atlas of Life. You only fail the test if you give up and go home. Imparting that sense of resilience is the very best support we can give our young people as they navigate their way through adolescence.