Young Irish People and Emotional Health
Recent surveys show that many Irish teenagers rate their emotional health and well-being as bad or only average. A 2017 UNICEF report (1) even suggested that Ireland’s teenage suicide rate is the fourth highest among high-income countries in the world, while one in five Irish children aged 11-15 years say they experience two or more psychological symptoms, such as feeling low, irritable or nervous, or having sleeping difficulties, more than once a week.
Many blame social media for these increased mental health problems among teenagers, with child psychiatrists tracking and linking social media usage with low self-esteem, anxiety and self-harm; and posing the question, how do we educate society to use technology to help us, rather than harm us. (2) Most lives are far from perfect, they argue, and social media brings with it the risk that young people see peers with (what seem to be) much more perfect lives, relationships, bodies, and looks. Young people can also face online bullying and encounter predatory strangers.
But even without social media life can be very hard as a teenager, due to exam pressures, anxiety around navigating relationships, concerns about sexuality, growing consciousness of parents’ pressures and worries, fears about conflicts in the world, and fears about the need to make their way in an increasingly complicated environment.
We need as a society to give our children the tools to cope with these pressures and dangers. We need to help them to see that the online perfect world is not the real world and we also need to help them to cope with the problems they do face in the real world. Many suggest that self- esteem is key to mental health, (3) a sense of control over their lives and a feeling of belonging, in addition to access to basic needs and the opportunity to grow and develop.
If children and young people are helped to become much more confident and aware of their unique strengths, they will surely be more able to deal with negative messages and problems from whatever source.
So how can the President help to promote mental health among young people? Of course great efforts are already being made by many groups in this field and duplication should be avoided, but the President could have a role in bringing together all the experts from academia, education, health, and other fields to find the gaps and therefore the opportunities to address the issues in a more meaningful way.
Many professionals working in the field believe that the most obvious place to start promoting mental health is to work with teachers and schools. Apart from encouraging teachers to improve their skills in talking to children about mental health issues, and providing extra guidance hours, there may, for example, be opportunities to allow teenagers to train to become mentors to peers or younger schoolmates; to promote more forms of exercise that teenagers who are not sporty might enjoy, such as dancing; or to organise self-development modules dealing with issues such as mobile phone use, getting enough sleep, eating healthily, fitness, assertiveness and so on.
The professionals say that the same concerns are emerging again and again in report after report but that there is still not enough coherent action to tackle what is becoming a big societal problem. (4)
“We have to do something realistic to support our next generation” says Eileen Keane, (5) who has designed supports for teens and parents and works with up to 1,500 young people a year. “The time for each and every one of us to fight for change is now, not next year, now. It is just unacceptable to see so many young Irish people struggling with their mental health. Everyone is asking for the same thing, support within the school system. It is the only place we can reach everyone equally, for prevention, support and education.”
A survey carried out by Eileen with Transition Year students found that phone usage was a huge factor, with 75% of respondents saying that their phone use impacted their lives in a negative way, and 38% saying that they felt lonely on a daily or weekly basis. And her concern is that these statistics are rising continuously, amid arguments among those involved as to whether there is causality or not, (6) that is, a consequence or a coincidence that mental health issues among young people are rising at the same time as smartphone use.
Either way, we need to invest more time and money in looking at what is going on for our young people right now, and prioritizing the protection of their mental health into the future. Our young people are our greatest asset, and every one of them deserves a safe environment in which to grow up, and every support to allow them achieve their potential. (7)
Mental Health Ireland gives the following pointers for parents, and has kindly given us permission to reproduce them here:
Things that can help keep children and young people mentally well include:
- being in good physical health, eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise
- having time and the freedom to play, indoors and outdoors
- being part of a family that gets along well most of the time
- going to a school that looks after the well-being of all its pupils
- taking part in local activities for young people.
Other factors are also important, including:
- feeling loved, trusted, understood, valued and safe
- being interested in life and having opportunities to be hopeful and optimistic
- being able to learn and having opportunities to succeed
- accepting who they are and recognising what they are good at
- having a sense of belonging in their family, school and community
- feeling they have some control over their own life
- having the strength to cope when something is wrong (resilience) and solve problems.
Most children grow up mentally healthy, but surveys suggest that more children and young people have problems with their mental health today than 30 years ago. That’s probably because of changes in the way we live now and how that affects the experience of growing up.