Guest post: "Are our children more anxious, or are we pathologising adolescence?"
The teen years are a time of great change but, asks Louise Chunn, how real is the apparent epidemic of unhappiness?
Posted on: Wed 20-Sep-17 10:58:30
(58 comments )
Everywhere I turn at the moment, people are talking about adolescents and young people - their entitlement, their anxiety, their isolation, their depression. Running a therapy site that matches people with the therapists best suited to them, I'm always being asked how and where to get help for teenagers and young people by worried parents.
American psychologist Jean Tweng's book iGen claims that for those born after 1995 'the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake' bringing anxiety, depression, loneliness and a constant fear of not being popular enough, or excluded.
Girlguiding UK's recent poll of more than 1,000 young people showed the biggest worry for 35% of girls aged 11-21 was comparing themselves and their lives with others. Last week the IPPR think tank reported that the number of students who disclosed a mental health problem in their first year rose fivefold to reach 15,395 in a decade.
But hang on now: how real is this epidemic of unhappiness? Could we be pathologising fairly normal adolescent feelings? The teen years are a time of great change. The bodies of girls and boys grow and develop dramatically from childhood into adulthood; we've only recently realised that brain development doesn't really finish until they're in their mid-20s.
Alan Percy, chair of Heads of University Counselling Services, sees a new bunch of 18-year olds every year. He confirms that young adults are reporting they are struggling with symptoms of depression and anxiety 'but the danger is to over medicalise the 'normal' struggles of young adult development.' He feels that rather than jump to treatment, many need to be encouraged to take ownership of their behaviour and feelings, instead of feeling powerless to cope.
Therapists and counsellors can help, that's what they're trained to do. But teens can also take a walk, go to sleep earlier, take a break from social media. Self-care can help, if they will let it.
One of the problems is unrealistic expectations. 'Young adults feel more overwhelmed by life, but it's important to recognise that for many this sense of anxiety and hopelessness comes from very black and white thinking.'
Cheshire therapist (and mother of teens) Penny Lawson admires how teens deal with the stresses of modern life, but identifies phones as a problem. 'Huge amounts of information coming in throughout the day and into night is having a big effect on this generation.'
She encourages teenage clients to see analyse phone and social media use. 'I ask them to list the good things they get out of it - and recognise the bad. Then they can weigh it up, as if on a set of scales.' Do they take any notice? Yes, she says, but 'I'm not their parent or teacher.'
The World Health Organisation states that across the world 10-20% of adolescents experience mental health disorders; of those affected in adulthood, half had started by age of 14, and three-quarters by mid-20s.
And there's the problem. If adolescence is when things can go wrong, in some cases eventually leading to long-term mental health problems, surely parents need to be serious and alert to problems, rather than simply see it as a common part of growing up?
But, says Percy, parents shouldn't just swoop in to make everything ok. 'As you get older, you have to learn to cope with life's uncertainties. If you fill life with rigid, perfectionist expectations, you’ll feel more anxious and disappointed.' The aim is to let young adults solve as many of their problems as possible. Young adults are grown up when they no longer think it's their parents' job to save them from every thing that might go wrong.
Penny Lawson says many parents struggle with controlling social media, and suffering with social comparisons. 'From the research I've seen, high social media use can be bad for self esteem. If parents don't have skills to navigate it themselves, they can't help their children.'
Where does that leave us? It's not the same world in which I grew up, where I moped in my bedroom but only until boredom got me out to meet a mate, or buy a magazine. But these days the world has permeated that formerly private space. It's brought with it raging FOMO and never-ending, minutely calibrated comparisons between your teen, his or her friends, and enemies. It's no surprise that he or she may be feeling down if they believe they don't measure up.
For some, depression or anxiety may take hold. They may be bullied, start to suffer from eating disorders, feel unable to mix with others, or experience obsessive-compulsive disorder or other phobias and psychological conditions. Therapists and counsellors can help, that's what they're trained to do. But they can also take a walk, go to sleep earlier, take a break from social media, see a good friend, play a team sport. Self-care can help, if they will let it.
As Penny Lawson says, 'These teens are living their lives in the public eye; they're going to behave differently than you or I did, but that doesn't mean they’re going to be a disaster.'
Louise Chunn is the founder of find a therapist platform welldoing.org and will be returning to her post to respond to comments.
By Louise Chunn
I've written about just this subject today on my blog. I think we are pathologising adolescence in the majority of cases.
Visit mummysdailytelegraph.bligspot.co.uk to find out more.
Interesting post and I agree.
There must be huge financial gains to be made for those in the profession of labelling and diagnosing straight forward teen behaviours as "illness".
Agree, normal teenage dismorphia is being labelled, not only by us as anxious parents seeking a diagnosis and potential cure for being a teenager, but also as a badge of difference or perceived "specialness" for the individual child.
I believe it to be damaging, once you have a label, it is very difficult to move beyond that.
I think there is a third possibility here: that in the past many teens struggled and that their parents and siblings and later their spouses and children simply had to carry them, because there was no other support to be had.
Have seen this in my family. My granddad thanks my grandma in his autobiography for supporting him during his frequently recurring periods of depression (but nobody knows what it did to her). I remember my own childhood as being very much taken up by supporting my DM through severe anxiety and depression, and sometimes extreme mood changes. To me, looking back, she is somebody who should have received professional support, not been propped up by a sometimes terrified 10yo. But it was something you were never allowed to talk about- so we didn't.
My own dd is the first family member who has received any external support. This looks bad in the statistics- but I hope her future family will feel the benefits. For one thing, bringing it out in the open and talking about it has made it possible to discuss boundaries and what is reasonable to expect other people to put up with. It has enabled her to develop conscious strategies rather than just expecting other people to make it well.
To the person above who said must be money to be made by those in the profession from pathologising young people.....no, no there really isn't.
I can assure you people like myself who work in young people's mental health services have NO desire to see mental illness where there is none. Our services are so very overstretched as they are, we don't need to go looking for extra patients!
I think there is some truth in the article above. People are in danger of losing sight of what is normal human experience, and part of teenage development can include periods of doubt, insecurity, mood swings etc. There is definitely an issue with poor resilience in many young people.
That said, there definitely IS a big increase in mental illness in young people. That is evidenced by soaring rates of young people being seein for self harm and suicidal feelings.
Compared to when I was a kid many years ago, the pressures on children and teenagers have increased massively. I don't think that that is unrelated.
Hello Mumsnetters , I am so pleased to be here for my first Mumsnet guest post. As I said, this is an area of teen life that is getting a lot of attention right now. And there are so many "on the one hand"s about it. I do think that when parents are seeing genuinely worrying behaviour they find it all-but impossible to stand by and do nothing. The statistics show that many adult mental health problems -serious ones - start in teens. But as cheesetoast says it can also become a badge of "specialness". From talking to professionals (who see teens every day in their consulting rooms) it seems that what teens want from their parents is to be listened to, to feel that on some level their parents are trying to understand them.
I think that mental health professionals are well equipped to diagnose whether the anxiety or depression is within the normal realms of teenage angst or if it is something more significant and needs treatment such as CBT.
Anxiety and depression can be so debilitating in interfering with everyday life that getting help from mental health teams is vital and necessary.
I have bipolar disorder and struggled with depression from around 11 years onwards. Considering mental health in children and teenagers just wasn't 'a thing' in the 80s/90s unless there were extremely severe issues (and even then I imagine options were limited).
I wouldn't have liked to have been diagnosed when I was a teenager simply because I think I would have attached too much of my growing identity to it however I think it would have helped a great deal to have access to talking therapies and CBT techniques.
In a way I think it would be useful to have access to talking therapies without the need to medicalise and diagnose at such a young age when so much of your personality/brain structure (not to mention hormones) are still in a state of flux.
I am foreign & the early stress in the UK education system, how they have to start planning their working lives & possible university career at the age of 15(!!) is insane. I've always hated that, how their entire school qualifications boil down to just a few single exam moments & so young. Then they have the pressure to make 'right' choices about their future with other doors rapidly closing behind them. I suppose it was ever thus, but OMG, it's horrible.
I liked them able to leave school at 16 in England. I thought that was stroke of genius for kids who don't engage. Pity the system changed to require an extra year.
All that said, my kids & their friends seem much more settled, less anxious & unhappy than I was, overall. And sheltered. Far less drugs, sex & self-destructive behaviour than we did in my country in the early 1980s. So I'm not getting the angst, either. Was Britain always an angst-prone country or is it the same in lots of places now? Look at the anxiety epidemic on MN. Eek.
I liked them able to leave school at 16 in England. I thought that was stroke of genius for kids who don't engage. Pity the system changed to require an extra year.
They can still leave school on the last Friday in June of the academic year in which they become sixteen. (Their actual age will be between 15.10 and 16.9 depending on their birth month).
From that point (or from their 16th birthday, if later) they can work full-time (defined as at least 20 hours per week).
They must, however, continue with some form of education (could be part-time) until either their 18th birthday or until they get two A levels or equivalent qualification (whichever comes first). The responsibility for ensuring this rests with them.
It took a lot of searching to find out about the 2 A levels thing. But I think it is a reasonable compromise.
Yet that's not really true, Leonard: I had a NEET last year so I know. In theory the kids "have" to do something; in reality they can doss & do nothing. They just get a few phonecalls & (inappropriate in DS's case) leaflets from the council to try to get them to not be a NEET. The approved of paths are narrow because they have to meet an educational requirement, thus shutting down paths & doors for what they can do at age 16-17: it was a bad idea, and it's achieved little.
I was not suggesting that the kids don't need CBT, personally I think we can all benefit from the help, and I would like it to be available to all, without the need to be defined by a label.
I don't have as much confidence as you in the abilities of Mental health professionals. They are not afforded the time and resources to be their best. It is often a tick tick, right you are X.
Yet that's not really true, Leonard
I'm not sure I understand your point. You said in your earlier post that "the system changed to require an extra year", implying an extra year at school. Yet they don't have to remain at school - they are supposed to continue with some form of education.
I do, however, completely agree with you that the "some form" is expected to have an academic content, as is clear from the wording of the early get-out clause. It is also true that the government is not policing this policy - and apparently has no intention of so doing - so people can indeed do nothing.
Like you say, it was a bad idea. Ostensibly it was introduced because better-qualified people have more job opportunities. Wearing my cynic's hat, however...
When kids could truly leave at 16 they used to be able to get any job.
Now that job has to have an education element to it -- continued pressure for kids that didn't respond well to pressure & academia in first place. There's competition for those apprenticeships, they can be hard to get at all. The pay can be lousy - around here, for instance, very good pay could be £160/week with easily 90 minutes travel time each way (so £14/day to pay for travel, out of that £160/wk). For a full time place & extra study to do on top. (I just looked it up, there are only 3 apprenticeships currently available within 5 miles of where i live; I live in one of the bigger towns in our county). ....There's a livestock apprenticeship 7 miles away for £105/wk.
The kids who have the least skills and motivation at 16-17 aren't helped by having fewer options. Getting into any work would help them.
Sorry OP, I think I've derailed your msg!
Just heard an advert for Adrian Mole diaries in Radio4. I think that might prove OP's thesis!! If ever there was an anxiety ridden kid. Those diaries were immensely popular & considered true to life for the private tribulations of the modern teen, in what, about 1985?
I think we have to be careful about 'demonising' social media. Yes it plays a huge part in the lives of our teenagers, particularly girls, but like it or not, it is not going to go away. There is a good argument for enabling teenagers to use technology as a force for good. eg. Putney High School, is currently rolling out a programme using a "Positive" app. It encourages girls to improve their 'social wifi' through regular use of an 'emotional barometer' on their school iPads. The idea being to connect with the 'App Generation' and help them better navigate the pressures of daily life in a way that is intuitive to them.
People often forget that teenagers are still developing emotionally and intellectually. If you judged a five year old adult standards you would find a whole host of mental health problems so we don't. When we see a five year old being selfish we call it up to them being five not a psychopath. So you don't we give teenagers the same generosity? Of course there always have been and always will be children with mental health problems just as there are adults. But a teenagers propensity to be moody, sullen, withdrawn, emotionally overwhelmed, anxious, unsure of themselves etc. Is not necessarily unhealthy. Quite the opposite perhaps.
Great to see different strands here. I think it's important that we don't see this as one problem, one answer. Teen life has always been a time of transition. I do understand why some people lay major increases in mental health problems - such as the UCL study which shows depression among 14 year old girls at almost one in four - at the door of social media. But you can also raise the issue of advertising, celebrity culture, education's greater reliance on scoring and competition. It's complex and I think we need to remember that each young person is an individual with their own issues.
I think MH issues for young people are real, should be validated and more resources are needed.
But that doesn't mean that every young person struggling with emotions or maturity or exams or social media and on and on does have a mental health problem.
There is an increasing trend to pathologise everything these days; particularly on sites like MN. People want to give very common albeit undesired thoughts or behaviours a label as they think that gives them more validity. Thousands upon thousands of people seem to think they have an ex or a family member who is a psycopath or a 'narc'. People say they're a 'bit OCD' when they like things tidy or have misophonia because they get annoyed by loud eating noises or coughing or trypophobia because they look at a picture and go 'ewww'. People say that things they don't like or make them feel uncomfortable are 'triggering' and warnings should be given. I saw a post earlier with an OP saying she'd drunk half a bottle of wine a night over the last few weeks and someone said 'you might have ADHD and be self-medicating!'
When there's more and more pressure on resources it can go one of two ways.
Those with aggressive tendencies become more aggressive, looting, speeding, terrorising others (physically by fighting/bombing. Online by bullying). The sensitive turn inward, self harming, cutting/substance abuse/withdrawal. There's more competition now for jobs/health care/education. Fewer places in the world will be habitable in the future. More crowded cities equals more aggression. Psychologists have known this for ages. The early rats in cages experiments were illustrative of this. Crowd more and more rats in a confined space and they eventually turn on one another or become riddled with anxiety!
We all have mental health the same way we all have physical health and good self care is really important for all of us regardless of age. I really believe that this should be taught in schools from an early age as knowing the best ways to stay well is such an important life skill. The way I see it a lot of mental health conditions are on a sliding scale from normal to seriously unwell. For example depression can range from feeling a bit low, but functioning ok through to severely unwell and hospitalised. Going for a walk and practicing good self care may work well at the less severe end of the scale for all of us, but isn't going to cut it if things are more severe. (And as anyone who's suffered severe depression will tell you how frustrating it is when you are struggling to walk as far as the bathroom each day for some well meaning person to cheerfully tell you you will feel better if you go for a walk)
Personally I think emerging mental health problems have been woefully underdiagnosed in teens. DH believes his psychosis started as a teen, his Mum took him to see Drs and was just told he was a difficult teenager. 10 years later following periods of homelessness, run ins with the police and multiple suicide attempts he finally got a diagnosis and help. It makes me angry that those 10 years were lost to illness because no one would believe that what he was experiencing was anything more than teen angst.
As a child I experienced breathing problems that were diagnosed as asthma. Looking back with an adult view, I now believe these were pannic attacks. They certainly were never eased by treatment for asthma and I'm not asthmatic now. My teen years were miserable despite being an active outdoorsy person and I struggled with self harm. As a teen myself I assumed this was normal and never told anyone until it got really bad again in my 30s. I suffered severe depression in my early 20s and was suicidal.
My friend suffered severe anxiety from teenage years, struggled at school and left with no qualifications and struggled to cope with work until one boss sat her down and managed to get to the bottom of her poor performance and pursuaded her to get help for the first time.
I think teaching children about mental wellness and illness, how to stay well, how to recognise when you are ill and where to get help if you need it can only be a good thing.
There is a lot of snake oil as well as reputable mental health services as well though, seal
My frustration is the inference that we can 'cure' mental health problems by being kind and hugging people. We should be kind of course, but it won't serve as a cure.
I do think someone must be making money out of this. I'm paying the Priory £148 an hour for DS1's therapy sessions. And twice that for the psychiatrist.
Teens are less physically active which results in a number of issues not least the impact on hormones, they are also connected constantly which alters a teens ability to develop a sense of "self". Previously we were "mindful" as we were walking/waiting for a bus etc today young people don't take that mental space they fill that time on a device. It will be very interesting to see the outcome of the SCAMP study which is looking at device use and the effect on the structure of the developing brain. I also think young people today aren't encouraged to develop resilience in the same way as we would have previously. I'm not sure it's mental ill health that we see more of but rather a lack of mental wellness (a subtle difference I know).