By any measure, we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis amongst the world’s young people. Weekly – sometimes daily – news coverage of studies and statistics leaves you in no doubt as to the huge rise in anxiety and depression-related conditions amongst this demographic.
So, why is this? In the UK and most of the first world countries we’ve been hit by a perfect storm of increased medicalising mental health diagnosis, widespread ineffective treatments for young people – CBT and SSRI anti-depressant medication are the main culprits, along with a slew of alternative treatments – and a rapidly increasing number of pressures on their mental health.
The downside of technology and social media have been well documented, not to mention an increasingly uncertain future in terms of jobs, financial stability and climate.
With mental health diagnosis at an all-time high, and ineffective treatments being used to treat a growing number of people, it’s not then surprising that nearly every statistic around mental health shows the world lurching towards a deep crisis of widespread poor mental health amongst young people.
The cycle is set: someone is diagnosed with a mental health condition and seeks treatment, the treatment doesn’t work or is only a temporary fix, and so they feel even worse: “If that didn’t work, as the NHS or Doctor told me it would, then I must be really ill…”
We all trust people in positions of trust and authority, such as medical professionals, so this is a common and understandable sentiment amongst people trying to overcome something such as depression or anxiety. We’ve seen this pattern a lot amongst young people who come to us for help.
Once you’re in this cycle, it’s hard to break out. Learned people and organisations who we trust, GPs for example, will tell you that you need to up your dose of the anti-depressant or try another type, convincing you that this might work…eventually…maybe when we get dose right.
You try it and feel better for a week, because the doctor said you would, and then the placebo effect wears off and you’re back to wondering why this doesn’t work. Wow, you must be really messed up as that surely works for loads of people…right? It doesn’t – that’s the elephant in the room.
The NHS and its Children and Adolescence Mental Health Services (CAHMS) are doing their best on limited resources but they and NICE fell for the brain-chemistry-being-cause-of-depression line in the 90s and base their front-line, go-to treatment for depression – medication – around this idea to this day.
It’s pretty obvious now that targeting just one vague factor like ‘brain chemistry’ is not a good way to treat our young people. CBT also has a similarly poor track record of helping people young and old actually overcome mental health issues for good. Both are a sticking plaster on what is often a complex combination of unhelpful thinking styles, learned helplessness, low self-esteem, states of anxiety, poor locus of control and environmental factors such as pressures from school, work, climate, family or other social factors.
So, how can we fix this crisis? If we were in Government, which seems a good place to start if you are going to change the world, we would implement mental health education from a very early age.
Just as you learn how to move your body and be physically healthy in PE in organised education around the world from their first year, children must learn to be mentally healthy too. For example, they could learn what self-esteem is and how to manage it, or about why perspective matters to your mental health, from a very early age.
Both concepts are easily understood but vital to good mental health. We must teach this alongside reading, writing and maths – after all, research has shown that mental health is of huge importance when it comes to being successful in life, just as these core skills are.
This is just the start – imagine the knowledge and resilience a child could build up if they’re taught about mental health and wellness for seven, eight, nine or ten years during their educational life. Instead of entering the adult world without any knowledge about what makes great mental health or how to maintain it, they’re fully versed in how to deal with anxiety or depression and don’t need to wait until they do have an issue to learn.
Alongside regular and age-specific mental health education, we would also train teachers to be good custodians of children’s mental health. Teachers would be taught how to use language and perspective to boost their student’s mental health.
They would be taught how to spot children with potential issues and help them overcome problems before they negatively impact their lives. They wouldn’t be helpless in the face of their own mental health issues with training in tools and techniques to overcome their own challenges too.
Steps are being taken by some Governments to boost mental health in schools, but if we continue to rely on outdated concepts, such as CBT and medication-based treatments, then the crisis will continue. Children will be stuck in the cycle of diagnosis, ineffective treatment and feeling worse because of it. They won’t overcome their mental health issue until they address the root causes and how to manage them (i.e. beat) effectively.
Those of you familiar with The Thrive Programme, will also be aware that we have a specific young person’s course and a Thrive In Education department that specifically helps schools and similar organisations to implement great mental health training and practices amongst teachers and pupils.
Whole schools and thousands of pupils in the Midlands and around the UK have been taking part in mental health training and the results have been amazing so far. Teachers report happier, more productive pupils – and the pupils will have learnt skills that will ensure they enter adult life as happy, resilient people.
Letting students leave their educational life with anything less than a thorough mental health education is a scandal that must be fixed immediately.
If you’re reading this and you know of a school, teacher or student who needs help, please get in contact with us today.