Helping the next generation live with feelings, not pathologise them.
Young people in our society are increasingly worried and upset – not about any aspect of their life in particular – but about being worried and upset.
This is a relatively new phenomenon. In the 1980s, surveys of teens showed they were worried about school, the future, relationships, friends, the environment and war. Today surveys of teens show they are also worried about one additional area – mental health. Not surprisingly therefore, young people are hypervigilent about their own difficult feelings.
Almost every young person who comes to our offices seeking support has googled their ‘mental health’ symptoms. They feel shocked, worried and depressed about having intense negative feelings. Many of them have diagnosed themselves with depression and anxiety. They see their difficult feelings as abnormal, needing treatment and unable to be tolerated.
Last month Sarah, aged 16, sat in my office. She had broken up with her boyfriend the day before and spent the day crying. By the end of the day, her mum, desperately worried about her – had taken her to the GP. Within hours of her break up, Sarah was taking anti-depressant medication.
What message about life and about suffering does this send?
Unfortunately, as a result of our attempt to destigmatise mental health problems we have sent some unhelpful messages. We have sent the message that strong difficult feelings are unusual, abnormal and pathological.
I am worried about what this means for the long term resiliency and wellbeing of our young people.
I have procrastinated about writing about this for a long time because I have been worried about being seen as trivialising mental health problems. Before I go any further, let me set the record straight:
* I believe that anxiety, depression and emotional pain are agonising experiences for many individuals.
* I believe many people have been born with brains which are especially predisposed to anxiety and depression, and that there are some “purely biologically” driven factors which strongly contribute to the experience of anxiety and depression.
* I believe that in many cases medication for anxiety and depression is a useful and life-saving tool.
However, I also believe that both mild and severe anxiety and depression are far more common than what a ‘disease’ model implies. I believe both mild and severe levels of anxiety and depression have complex and multifaceted causes. I believe people with both mild and severe anxiety and depression need support and a range of options to help them cope with how they feel.
Some of these messages have not reached young people.
We need to teach young people that for many of them, on many days – they will feel simply terrible. And when this happens they should reach out to others and get support and help. But that feeling bad is not a rare “brain disease” but an unfortunate part of life – more so for some – but still commonly experienced by many.
Most importantly, we need to teach young people that with the right help and support – they can meaningfully live with all kinds of difficult emotions and cope with all kinds of difficult situations.
By Kirrilie Smout, Clinical Psychologist Specialising in supporting Kids and Teens
Kirrilie helps kids and teens develop resilience, cope better, stay calm and get through tough times. More information, and free articles and resources for teachers and parents can be found at www.developingminds.net.au