How can we improve the mental health of young people?

A Blog by MAP CEO Dan Mobbs

It’s #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and we’ve been thinking about the rising number of young people in school with mental health issues. So what is causing all these problems? And what do we do about it?

We’ve known for a long time that half of all mental health problems start before the age of 14. ITV research in East Anglia found that 98% of school heads thought the number of young people struggling with mental health problems was increasing.  Recent research from the Mental Health Foundation found that only 13% of us actually say our mental health is good! 7 out of 10 18-34 year olds say they have experienced mental health problems. Young people have the worse mental health. We need to know what is causing these high levels of distress.

But before we do, let’s think about good mental health. Let’s think about feeling good, enjoying life and being able to deal with challenges. Imagine a thriving person – they’ve probably got a happy and supporting home life, good parents, loving relationships, have had a healthy meal and live in a decent home, have opportunities to experience different things; have learnt what they like, are able to communicate their feelings and know how to get what they need. I’m wondering what prevents good mental health rather than what prevents bad mental health; the lack of these things?

The charity Mind has a long list of causes of mental health problems: trauma, abuse, neglect, isolation, discrimination, bereavement, unemployment, housing problems, physical health problems, domestic violence. The list goes on. Genetics may be a factor – we’re not sure. On the whole we’re talking about negative life experiences. According to the Centre for Mental Health young people from poorer backgrounds are far more likely to have mental health problems. The Government’s own Social Mobility Commission noted that young people from poorer backgrounds do less well at school.

So now let’s imagine a young person in school. In addition to all that may be going on at home, there are other pressures in the school. Pressure to succeed, pass exams, be good at everything, have lots of friends, be respected, be good looking, well dressed, and have the best stuff. Thousands of young people in Norfolk were asked what their biggest concerns were by their Youth Advisory Boards. They said bullying, discrimination, relationships and mental health. Schools are forced to focus on an ever narrowing curriculum. Resources for emotional support are diminishing. Youth services have been cut. Those opportunities for positive experiences are reduced – only available to those who can afford it. This makes no sense at all. Schools know that if a young person is feeling insecure, unsettled or angry they can’t concentrate, they can’t do their best. These are the young people we need to make our country a success. They’re burnt out before they leave school!

What about social media? This is easily misunderstood and blaming it can put a divide between young people and adults. Mind you, adults are all over social media too! Social media is a powerful platform for good and bad things. Bullying, discrimination, exploitation can all happen online. Young people can be overwhelmed with information about how they should think, look, behave and what a loser they are if they don’t get it right. It is 24/7. You can’t get away from it. It’s exhausting, literally. Because the big problem is … not switching off. Whilst there isn’t evidence that social media directly causes mental health problems it definitely causes lack of sleep! So turn off the Wi-Fi when it gets late.  Checking your phone all night is not good for your health. And you know what; it really can wait! Modern life often doesn’t leave us much time to reflect on what is important to us, what really makes us feel good, what our heart is saying.

So if the causes are poverty, difficult family life, and stressful or traumatic experiences – made worse by relentless social media, what do we need to do? Mental health services need more investment and they need to be different.

We need more investment. The 94% of the head teachers surveyed by ITV said they didn’t have enough support for young people’s mental health, and despite increases in problems, nearly half had reduced support because of pressure on school budgets. The Education Policy Institute noted NHS spending on children and young people’s mental health was only 0.7% of the NHS budget. This is a scandal.

We need things to be different. Services are mostly acute, medicalised; hard to access. Young people have told us for years how difficult they find them to use. Schools can’t access them easily. We wait for problems to get big before we do anything, then they are complicated and long term. We need more community based services, easy access, drop-in, in schools; more support for charities. We need to act earlier. We need advisers, youth workers and counsellors not just doctors and nurses. We need to listen to young people. We need to think about the social causes – families with housing problems, unemployment and debt; and the impact these have on young people’s mental health. Why spend money on anti-depressants dealing with someone’s depression caused by debt? Why not deal with the debt? We need some joined up action and it’s something governments just don’t seem to be able to get right.

Sounds like what we really need is a better world! We need more support for those who need it, more opportunities for those who don’t have them and more time to reflect. We need things to be fairer and success to be measured very differently.