Covid-19, has left a very concerning legacy for the mental health and wellbeing of young people. According to Young Minds, ‘one in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a probable mental health problem in July 2021, a huge increase from one in nine in 2017. That’s five children in every classroom’. UCAS reported a 450% increase in mental health declarations over the past decade. Globally, One in 7 10-19 year olds experience mental health conditions, according to the World Health Organisation, but these remain untreated and unrecognised for many young people. The pressure on mental health services is enormous. The cost of living crisis and private therapy is a luxury. The lack of training (or time enabled for it) about young people’s mental health for teachers, caregivers, parents and guardians is alarming. It feels like a very helpless Cartesian Circle.
In many ways it falls upon young people and those they are surrounded by to support one another to help prioritise positive mental health and wellbeing. This isn’t right and we are not experts. Mental Health is an illness that needs professional advice, guidance and support.
Wellbeing needs to be a priority in the education system, especially as we know it is intrinsically linked to the success, outcomes and positive development of children.
Until we break the stigmas associated with mental health conversations and disclosures, until it is a centralised focus for the medical and education institutions, there are small steps we can try and take to support young people with their mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
Teach young people to hope in a tangible way
This may sound odd and a little fantastical, but recent conversations with fellow educationalists got me thinking about the term hope. We use it so often and different faiths, cultures and people attribute a variety of meanings to the word, ‘hope’.
If we teach young people to hope, we are helping them believe that things can and will be better. This doesn’t need to be religious, cultural, or even spiritual; hope can also be the small, minor steps we take in our thinking and actions to know things will get better.
To caveat, of course, it is not as simple as telling a young person to ‘hope’ and they’ll ‘feel better'. This would be gaslighting, offensive and wrong. Nor is it expecting a few exercises in positivity to ‘solve’ what can be described as the health crisis of younger generations. Hope is not the solution. However, what it does is offer what it is: hope.
If practiced, taught and enabled in schools (not just in PSHE…) and at home, from a young age, teaching young people to hope in pragmatic and practical ways can provide them with tools they need to help navigate their emotional wellbeing and resilience. Here are a few practical versions of ‘hope’, which I hope support positive mental health in young people:
1. Teach (and model) vulnerability and empathy.
The playground can be a toxic and scary place. I wouldn’t describe it as a safe space. It may be fun and the breathing space young people need at school. but it can also be very, very overwhelming. It’s where difficult exchanges can take place: teasing, bullying, isolation and the pressure to fit in. It can force some young people to think and act in disrespectful ways (to put it lightly!), do and say things they know they shouldn't just to 'survive'. We need to teach young people the opposite of all of this.
We need to model vulnerability and teach mutual respect. We need to show young people it’s ok to have good days AND bad days; it’s ok to sit with difficult emotions, which they may be experiencing for the very first time and just need time to feel them (Harry Moore discusses this on the SSB pod) and attempt to understand them. And, most importantly, we need to teach them to listen with respect and understanding.
At times, we as adults, need to not be so strong and ‘perfect’ in front of them; they see this type of strength all too much and too glamorously on social media. We need to be honest with them and admit, ‘this is hard’ (love Glennon Doyle!) whatever that may be.
We need to hold space for them and for each other too. Young people don’t always need or want us to fix things. They don’t need us to say, ‘don’t worry about it’, ‘just ignore it’, or, ‘in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not a big deal’. What they need is for us to listen. If they ask for advice, don’t assume that just translates into making things better; what it means is to put yourself in their shoes, offer a bit of perspective and more than anything, create a safe and secure space for them to feel acknowledged and seen.
2. Teach routine and focus
Routine is sometimes the distraction we all need. Having a routine and focus, whether that be a new book, a range of podcasts, a sport or a hobby, can really help with positive wellbeing.
As much as mental and emotional health is really difficult to navigate, there can be times where a distraction is welcome and a routine (time or task bound) can help manage certain feelings of adversity. Losing yourself in a good book, listening to a positive podcast (or a funny one), exercising, cooking, cleaning, spending time with friends…whatever the distraction (or focus) may be, can support positive mental health.
It’s not easy to keep to a routine. In fact, sometimes it’s more comfortable, second-nature perhaps, to sit with our adversity, as shared in this Moment Podcast by Steven Bartlett. This isn’t to say adversity is easy, it can just feel more comfortable than forcing yourself into a mindset that feels alien and difficult to achieve. Routine can help overcome this barrier and overtime, something that feels alien can get easier and easier to attain.
3. Teach joy
As much as I love the world wide web and social media, it has well and truly sucked the joy out of life. Seriously. Can you imagine telling people, even 20 years ago, that we now spend time, giving ourselves neck strain scrolling, staring blankly at the lives of other people? We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that passively overloading our brains with social media (positive, negative and overwhelming toxic) is ‘fun’? Is stress relief? I mean, I’ll hold my hands up and say I’m addicted to my phone. Whilst it's a distraction, it’s joyless, stressful, often makes me feel unsatisfied and gives me serious FOMO, and I hate the amount of money (and time!) I now spend on neck massages. Ok, rant over.
We need teenagers to be joyful. The joy a 3-year-old experiences for no apparent reason other than making themselves dizzy, laughing for laughter’s sake, is pure wonder. I know that sounds a bit whimsical and maybe unrelatable for some, but young children understand joy more than any adult I know. I envy it and it angers me that we somehow drain them of joy when they get to school…but we can fix that too. Have fun with them. Chill in lessons - be human together. Teach young people to drop the ego, to be vulnerable and to make themselves dizzy and laugh. We all need it.
4. Encourage exercise and a varied diet.
It sounds simple, but it’s not. The cost of living crisis, the rise in food prices, exam pressure and more makes exercise and health a ‘nice to have’ as opposed to a natural and intrinsic part of student life.
We all know how important Physical Education is on the curriculum, yet the contact time for students is disproportionately less compared to subjects like maths, English and science. Of course, I’m not saying there is an easy solution to this. But, where you can, encourage young people to walk, jog or run, to sit outside, to learn about food and to enjoy cooking from scratch and to understand what balance means.
That said, a huge concern for schools and health professionals is the adverse impact of mental health on diet, eating habits and more. It’s an overwhelmingly worrying issue. However, we come back to ‘where you can’. Small steps at school or at home can eventually help, represent and model the positive impact exercise and diet can have on our mental, physical and emotional health.
5. Practice gratitude
Often underestimated, gratitude can help young people experience and manage their circumstances and wellbeing more effectively. However it isn’t as simple as telling a child to be grateful - it needs to be practised and eventually, an active habit. The Character Lab’s Playbook on gratitude has some very useful tips and exercises that can be used in school or at home to help children with this.
It is always difficult to write a blog like this especially when the answer isn’t as simple as reading it. I just hope that if we encourage young people to take practical and mindful steps towards positive health and wellbeing - some of which are discipline, habits and learned behaviours - we can help them overcome and navigate their mental health and wellbeing. Young people won’t always like us for it (especially in the short term), they may try avoiding support and help we put in place. However, teachers and parents can be pretty amazing with their patience and perseverance - and, I guess, that’s what young people need from us too, especially when it comes to their wellbeing (and our own!).
Useful links for young people and teachers:
This blog is information only and not personal advice. It is recommended that you seek professional mental health advice where relevant.