When Hawton and James published their seminal work into the mental health of young people they produced some disturbing figures. Close to a half of adolescents experienced suicidal thoughts. One in seven self-harmed.
Teenagers worry. It is a condition of growing up, like acne and intolerance of parents. The problem is that this trait is getting worse at a frightening pace.
That report came out in 2005, a time when we (rightly) believed young people were under more pressure than over. Since then, the rates of self-harm have more than trebled, emotional issues in general have doubled.
Our young people are in crisis. It is not of their own making.
What Causes Mental Health Problems?
The answer is less complicated than we might imagine. People suffer mental health issues when their core values and beliefs are over run. In other words, when they feel that their world is changing in a way that is spreading out of their control.
There are so many causes of this: pressure from peers, especially bullying (which includes perceptions of being bullied); pressure from school work; home problems; expectations of oneself that are unrealistic. But among the gloom, there are pockets of hope. For example, society is becoming increasingly aware of gender dysphoria, realising that this is a serious and relevant problem, especially to young people, and cannot be resolved by a joke, a cold shower and a game of rugby.
The Consequences of Mental Health Problems
In almost every case, the consequences of this feeling that life is running out of control are stress and anxiety. Our young people are the most stressed and anxious in the Western World. That is something of which we should be ashamed. Even more, our politicians should feel disgrace at what is happening under their watch. They won’t of course. Unless they spy some votes or career progression in a bout of verbal self-flagellation.
The Symptoms That Indicate Problems
To a greater or lesser degree, people need to feel in control. Even if that feeling means giving control to others. So when their lives start to run away from them, they seek ways of getting it back. That means taking charge of the one thing that is totally under a person’s power – themselves.
Self-Harm – More Than a Cut on the Arm
Self-harm is a way of releasing tensions which usually involves cutting, often on the arms and legs. Signs are likely to be a series of short horizontal cuts on the arms and wrists. Rarely are these deep, and might only be visible as long thin scabs, or blood spattering on sleeves.
I spoke to a CaMHS nurse once, and she said something interesting. While we should definitely keep a close watch on a child who self-harms, it does achieve what it sets out to do – that is provide temporary relief from anxiety. There are also many ways adolescents seek to relieve their anxiety that are much, much more dangerous.
Young people are resourceful. Unless we completely restrict their growing up (in a way likely to send their lives spinning ever faster out of control) they will find ways of finding the tools they need. For example, while teachers would not dream of leaving their Stanley knife around, pencil sharpeners don’t get the same attention. But they still contain a sharp blade, and it is the work of just a moment to undo the little screw that holds that blade to its plastic frame.
Self-harm also includes more serious damage to oneself. Thumping walls can result in damage to hands, and burning with cigarettes can cause deep physical injury.
Some young people self-harm as a way of punishing themselves, feeling that their problems are down to their own inadequacies.
Issues With Food
Food is another route young people use to help them regain control. We all know the consequences of anorexia and bulimia. Some children manage to get hold of laxatives as well, or eat adequate amounts of food, but of an insufficiently varied nature. This can be particularly dangerous, because the obvious signs of anorexia (weight loss) and bulimia (vomiting) are less clear.
Linked to this, and growing in popularity, is the use of excessive exercise. Often, but far from exclusively, a tactic of boys, again it can be hard to spot the signs of over exercise.
Other Mental Health Symptoms To Look For
Teachers can also keep their eyes open for other behaviour traits which show a child is suffering from mental health issues. OCD behaviour is an obvious one. I taught a boy once who seemed, at 13, to be as in control of his life as could be imagined. It was only when one of his friends told me to look at how he set out his books – the same system every time for laying out and putting away; the way he took four pens out of his case and put three of them back, that alarm bells should have rung.
But I was ignorant, and found the behaviour funny as much as anything; within a couple of years, the boy had completely lost his way.
Excessive working is another form of OCD – what we used to call perfectionism, like it was a good thing.
What Can We Do?
The problem is, not very much. We can make our environment as normal and stress free as possible. We can set fair expectations; we can listen and observe. We can talk to parents, and be assertive when we have worries. But we are teachers, not counsellors. Our roles are inevitably limited. And we are not experts. One school I know recently added two extra assemblies dealing with this subject. But they did so without warning, changing the school routine and taking GCSE students out of essential lessons. More harm was caused than benefit gained.
The issue of mental health is society’s problem. The likes of Governments seeking to gain popularity by ‘raising standards of education’ are a major contributor. Through their soundbite ignorance, politicians put pressures on OFSTED, who pass it to schools, who place it on children. Not consciously, mostly, but that is the result. A refusal to tackle the glamorisation of self-harm, suicide and so forth on social media is another problem. Society’s definition of what represents success and failure – and as teachers we probably contribute here – does not help young people.
Tackling these kinds of problems require big choices. And society (I mean politicians) does not like those. Because making big choices is tough, and risky. And therefore to be avoided. Sometimes it is easier to mouth platitudes and do nothing.
This should not be the case with our young people’s mental health. The Government can start to reverse the crisis by opening its wallet, giving proper funding to CaMHS and paying for every school to employ its own fully qualified counsellor. But, I suspect, it won’t.
(The University of Northampton runs a one and two year post graduate course for those wishing to become counsellors. Contact University of Northampton )