We are all human. We place value on our health and wellbeing, and strive to live in contentment. Sometimes we get sick and then, hopefully, we get better again. While physical sickness comes in many visible forms, mental sickness can be a much more concealed, conniving and consuming creature.
On 10 October each year, World Mental Health Day sheds light on the stigma that still surrounds the topic of mental health. It provides an opportunity for individuals, groups, and organisations working in the expansive field of mental health to discuss their work and promote the importance of mental health care for people around the world. This year, the World Health Organisation has highlighted Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World as the focus topic.
Regardless of an individual’s background, adolescence and young adulthood is a critical time of transition and change, often bringing with it uncertainty and stress. Events like moving house, changing schools, leaving a familiar area, living away from family for the first time, or even moving to another country can adversely affect a person’s mental wellbeing. For youths living in destabilizing environments resulting from natural disasters or active conflicts, mental wellbeing is particularly at risk. And seeking balance in a world overflowing with technology is an additional cause for concern amongst young people. The pressures that come with social media (striving towards a perceived ideal, cyberbullying, fake friends made online and not enough real life interactions) can have a huge impact on mental wellbeing.
Poor mental health frequently has a knock-on effect for other health and developmental issues in young people, from lower achievement scores due to depression, to hospitalisations as a result of struggling with an eating disorder. Substance abuse can also often go hand in hand with mental illness. This can create a co-occuring disorder situation, where the individual finds themself having to deal with two illnesses at the same time.
According to the World Health Organisation, half of all mental illness begins by aged 14, but the vast majority of cases go undetected or untreated. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in adolescents between the ages of 10-19, and mental health disorders take 2 of the top 5 causes of ‘years lost to disability’ in 10-14 year olds. Mental health is not yet getting the global action it so desperately needs. The shocking reality is that mental health disorders affect 1 in 10 children in countries like the UK, commonly as a direct response to an external event affecting their lives, but up to 70% cases go without treatment.
Thankfully, we are a far cry away from our historical ways of treating mental illness. We no longer label people suffering from a mental illness insane, throwing them into a lunatic asylum where countless lobotomies and electroshock therapies were performed. Our understanding of mental health and psychiatry as a whole continues to develop exponentially, and new treatments are tested every day to aid those that are in need of them. But our collective effort to break down the stigma surrounding mental health still has a long way to go. Public stigma (prejudicial attitudes towards a sufferer) and self-stigma (internalizing those perceptions of prejudice) are still incredibly common, and can prohibit an individual from seeking the help they need.
Schools play an essential role in the development of young people, and many have created strategies to help their students adapt to the pressures of an ever more complicated world. With the mental health of young people considered a global public-health challenge, key skills like adaptability and resilience are important to develop from a young age within the school environment. Some schools have integrated mental health into the curriculum, ensuring that there is a suitable environment where the topic can be discussed and unpacked. Others have developed additional educational components dedicated to social emotional development, which can take on the form of mindfulness practices, group counseling sessions and safe spaces. Many schools are striving towards making the discussion of mental health an open and honest one, and many educators are now receiving basic training in mental health support.
For parents, noticing that their child may be suffering from mental illness can be difficult to determine. Behavioural changes like a lack of motivation, depleted energy levels, avoidance of family and friends, difficulty in concentrating, persistent physical symptoms or bullying others can be key indicators of an undiagnosed mental illness. Ensuring children have a safe environment where trust and open-mindedness are valued is crucial when addressing these issues.
It is important to remember that a person’s mental health can be impacted at any point in their life. Mental illness can arise from unforeseen circumstances like traumatic events, or develop from repeated stresses found in environments like the workplace. Our mental health should be taken just as seriously as our physical health, and we need the support to ask for help when we need it. If you or someone you know is struggling, there are wonderful charities like Mind that can help.