There have been welcome signs over the past few years of the beginnings of a shift in societal attitudes towards the subject of mental health. This has been largely a taboo area, but more recently there has been some evidence of an increasing willingness to talk about this hitherto hidden subject. An additional nudge in this direction has resulted from the national lockdowns instituted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The normal busyness of life was brought to a stop, networks and patterns of relationships were interrupted, and liberties were curtailed. The suddenness of such enormous changes prompted many to confront, perhaps for the first time, the robustness of their own mental health. The impact for teenagers was heightened by the need to limit social activity since this forms part of the exploration and striving for independence from parents that is associated with adolescence.
What is Mental Health?
It is widely recognised that one of the barriers to discussion in the area of mental health is its confusion with mental illness. In trying to understand these terms, I find it helpful to draw a parallel with physical health and physical illness. We all have mental health and need to look after it, just as we all have physical health and should protect it. At times, we may experience a mental health issue, just as we might experience a physical health issue, which may be easily resolved or something we have to learn to live with, but it is not necessarily an illness or evidence of one. However, if we develop an illness, be it mental or physical, it will impact our (mental or physical) health and will often require some form of treatment or intervention Huffington Post. It should also be noted that whilst they are treated separately above for the sake of drawing the extended comparison, our mental and physical health influence and affect each other. In general, our mental health refers to our ability to cope with life, to process our emotions and feelings, and to manage stress.
Teenagers and Mental Health
It is important to remember that the teenage years are a significant developmental stage in the life of a person. As they seek to develop independence from their parents, teenagers are developing the strategies and tools that will enable them to cope with the stresses of independent adult life. This applies as much to a person’s mental health as to any other area of their life, and it is complicated by the intensely personal nature of our individual mental health profile. Some teenagers by their make-up are, for example, more prone to worry about things than others; some might handle stressful situations with ease whilst some of their friends cannot. This means that any definition of what constitutes “normal” mental health must leave room for personal variation. Ultimately, I prefer to think of a good level of mental health as being a state of mind that enables the individual to enjoy life whilst managing its stresses.
However good one’s level of mental health might be, there will still be difficult experiences in life and teenagers need to learn to distinguish between serious challenges to mental well-being and just having a bad day or a difficult time. Robust mental health enables us to face and deal with difficulties and challenges and to become stronger as a result. In July, an article carried by Heidi News in Switzerland, stated that “The Covid-19 lockdown has affected the mental health of some 40% of teenagers, stressed by being cut off from friends and schools, fears of falling ill and a future that is out of their control.”. However, I would argue that fears of falling ill during a pandemic are a natural human response, and for the vast majority, their mental health will enable them to face and manage those fears. Those most at risk from the experience of lockdown in terms of mental health are those who already have underlying mental health issues, whether they have been previously diagnosed or not. Such underlying issues make it more difficult for them to respond appropriately to the new situation.
A month later, it was revealed that a study conducted in the UK amongst 13-14 year olds had indicated that for some teenagers, mental health had improved during the lockdown. As the NIHR School for Public Health Research suggests, the mental health improvement “may be due to the removal of stress factors often found in school environments such as pressure of academic work and challenging peer relationships.” With regards to the present discussion, the findings serve to underline the individual nature of mental health.
Teenagers, Mental Health Issues and Mental Illness
Given that different people and organisations draw the line between mental health issues and mental illness at different places, I find the comments of the Mental Health at Work Group helpful: “When a mental health issue begins to seriously take over a person’s life – impacting work, relationships, education, or social lives – MHAW considers it to be a mental illness.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that 10-20% of adolescents globally experience mental health conditions. Anxiety and depression head the majority of listings of the most common mental health conditions experienced by teenagers, often followed by loneliness and stress. Such listings often go on to include eating disorders, self-harm, drug-taking, and a variety of learning, behavioural or personality disorders. The WHO points out also that suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15-19-year-olds.
What can parents do?
Parents are both the best placed and the worst placed to be able to help their teenagers in the area of mental health and well-being. Proximity within the family enables observation of behavioural changes that might be important signs of a developing mental health issue. At the same time, however, some teenagers are extremely reluctant to talk about personal issues with their parents. Often, the ability to help relies on a strong pre-existing relationship, which all parents can seek to build with their teenager.
I would summarise what parents can do, as follows:
- Model and seek an adult relationship with your teenager.
- Make time to listen to your teenager.
- Take what your teenager says seriously.
- Don’t pretend you know all the answers.
- Seek out quality information about mental health amongst teenagers, including the signs to look out for.
- Be on the lookout for marked behavioural changes – not the same as being faced by teenage stroppiness.
- Don’t be afraid to suggest medical help if you think it is required, or to insist if you think the condition is becoming worse.
Parents need support too
Parenting can be hard work and extremely stressful. When faced with possible issues with the mental health of their teenager, parents can also feel incredibly alone. Wise parents will recognise the need to find support for themselves. Whether that support is professional or informal, having someone to whom they can talk about their fears, and who can help them find a way forward, is an invaluable aid to becoming better equipped to help and support their teenager.
This article was published in the Spring edition of International School Parent magazine, 2021.