Over the past 20 months since taking on this role, children and young people have told me and taught me a lot.They have taught me they are the barometers of hypocrisy, they are the secret source of our future growth and opportunity, and they are the focus of our adult anxiety about just about anything we are uncertain of or uncomfortable with.
They have told me that they want me to share their views, experiences and opinions with as many adults as I can. Most common of all the messages I am asked to share is that they want their parents, doctors, teachers, coaches, counsellors and bosses to listen and not judge them or jump to conclusions based on their experience. They want to be supported by them and work with them to find solutions to their problems.
I therefore take every opportunity possible to share and represent children and young people’s views and experiences to parents, service providers, government, business, law makers, health professionals. Wherever I go there is always at least one statement from the audience that goes something like… “the problem with kids today is that they are just not as resilient as previous generations, and that’s why we have a mental health crisis…”
I actually think this generation is resilient, but I also know that they live in more complex, and uncertain times, and with more rapid change and disruption than any other time in our history.
We have technological, industrial, and social revolutions creating ambiguity and high levels of interpersonal connections, multiple and complex relationships and less down/alone time than previous generations. They also have more information to process, more relationships to navigate, more diversity to understand and radical transparency creating less trust. Is it not surprising then that some young people struggle?
So more recently I have asked young people about mental health and if they think it is it better, worse or just different for this generation.
As we should expect, there are multiple perspectives, and responses are often very personal. There are, however, some themes that have emerged from my conversations that I think are worth sharing, as they give us a glimpse into the experiences of many young people.
There are two things that have stood out.
The first is the level of stigma young people talk about in relation to mental health, and the second is the role of friends in supporting their mates who have significant mental health issues.
The first has surprised me, because over my lifetime I have seen such a growth in the depth and level of community conversation in relation to mental health, from disclosure by celebrities and political leaders to TV shows and movies and self-diagnosis via Dr Google. From my perspective the level of information available is huge. However according to the young people I have spoken to this “chatter” may have not helped to grow empathy towards people who are doing it tough. They talk about the normalising of everyone self-diagnosing, and use of language like depression and anxiety having the opposite effect. It is now a case of… ‘well it can’t be that bad if everyone has it’. Therefore, when you have serious mental health issues, people expect you to just get over it and cope like everyone else. That means those who need treatment are seen as weaker, which has a stigmatising impact.
The second is the role of friends in supporting their peers, with the growth of emotional intelligence in progressive generations we now have a generation with a language to label feelings and experiences and a willingness to share with their mates.
That means many young people are trying to support peers whilst often dealing with their own issues. These informal support networks can often be overstretched but young people talk about real barriers for them in getting adult help. Young people tell me that in their situations they are most likely to turn to their parents for help rather than schools or professionals.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that many parents feel that there is a crisis in youth mental health.
So what does all this mean and what should we do to help support young people deal with stigma and access to support as the “first responders”.
Parents need information, not just about their child’s mental health but also letting them know their young person is likely to be the first to know about their friend’s issues and therefore parents need to understand how to listen, what they can do, and how to react in helpful ways. They need to know who they can contact, what they should tell the school etc.
With regards to reducing the stigma and supporting young people as first responders, we should be engaging them directly in designing their preferred types and methods of support. They need to design the best ways they can encourage their friends to seek help by telling us what doesn’t work now and how it can be improved.
I will continue to have conversations and workshops with young people to ask them what they want from us. We should enable this generation to be the one that finally breaks the stigma around mental health by working with them to design the resources and support they want.
Without this direct engagement with young people we risk not delivering on what they actually need/want, not what we think they need.
Helen Connolly, Commissioner for Children and Young People SA.
Friday 22nd March 2019