It’s the relentless Always-On culture, the dictatorship of that little hand-held device that tweets and instagrams all day (and night) long.
It’s Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO.
It’s cyberbullying. And now also Climate Change Anxiety, or Eco Anxiety.
All leading to teenagers whose stress levels are rising and rising – just as global temperatures and sea levels.
As if it is not already bad enough to work through the ordinary, everyday garden variety angst of being a teenager.
But, teachers, head teachers and parents, please listen up: We all need to give more attention to mental health in class rooms, in school halls during the weekly assembly, and around our dining tables.
From 16 to 23 February it is Teen Suicide Prevention Week.
In the US the whole of February is dedicated to Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, focusing on the fact that every year about 1,5 million high school students experience physical abuse from dating partners.
On February 11 it was Safer Internet Day, also aimed at teens’ “digital” health.
Safer Teen Day?
Clearly, it seems every day should rather be Safer Teen Day. Why? Because all statistics point to how teenagers are under more and more stress.
In the UK, between 2016 and 2019, the number of schools buying in professional mental health support almost doubled – from 36% in 2016 to 66% in 2019.
We do not have such statistics for South Africa – how many schools can “buy in” mental health services in any case?
But we do know that the state of our country’s mental wellbeing “is in severe crisis”, according to one report.
A study by the University of Cape Town indicated that in low-income and informal settlements around Cape Town one in three women suffers from post-natal depression.
Research done in KwaZulu-Natal showed that 41% of pregnant women were depressed.
- 1-in-5 new mothers will experience depression before or after giving birth
- 'Heavily and unfairly burdened' - Reflecting on the plight of teen moms this Women's Month
- Youth around the world are marching to stop climate change
Is it utterly hopeless?
Imagine what the mental ill-health toll is on youngsters growing up in these environments where life must seem so utterly hopeless.
But, we each can make a difference.
Adults can, and must, speak up and help teenagers to understand that mental ill-health is not something to be ashamed of.
We can break the silence and the stigma by speaking openly about why mental health is the foundation of all health, and by breaking that terrifying silence around mental stressors affecting so many teenagers and which may lead to disorders such as depression and anxiety.
A preventable tragedy
Almost one in ten teenage deaths in South Africa is caused by suicide. Depression is the cause of suicide in more than 90% of cases.
Depression is a treatable illness, suicide a preventable tragedy.
Of course it is not easy to broach the subject. Especially not with those ever pervasive social media images showing how great everybody’s life is, what with those smiling selfies all over your smartphone’s screen.
Except, yours isn’t.
Take urgent action
While we know how the statistics are climbing, common mental disorders, CMDs for short, are also rising, and fast – like our planet’s rising temperatures and our ocean levels. We need to take urgent action to break the silence and the stigma around CMDs – especially depression, the leading cause of suicide.
And we should know by now, not talking about an issue will not make it go away.
The bogeyman will be lurking somewhere out there, waiting. But by exposing him, he can be disempowered. In fact, totally disarmed.
So where do we start?
Right there in the class room. Right there during Assembly. Right there in the bus or car to school. Right there around tonight’s dining table.
Make an “uncomfortable” subject comfortable by normalising and humanising it.
Would you be uncomfortable discussing the school’s rugby hero’s broken leg, or a fellow student’s cancer diagnosis? Why then not talk about the most important organ in our body?
So, please, use the week to break the silence and the stigma. We cannot deny any more that the stressors leading to teenagers’ mental ill-health are on the increase. We owe it to them to take the lead.
- Suicide is not an option: Useful ways parents can help their teens
- Millie Bobby Brown talks bullying, having to switch schools and how she’s making social media a “happy place” because of it
- Why teen depression rates are rising faster for girls than boys
There are the existing CMDs, such as depression and the different types of anxiety, from social anxiety right up to Big Daddy full-blown panic disorder, leading to those frightful panic attacks.
But then there are the “new kids on the block”.
FOMO – the result of that wonderful gadget called a smartphone that disgorges information 24/7, whether relevant or not. And you, latched on 24/7, fearing you might miss out.
FOMO is already described as a disorder, but there are new types of anxiety, such as climate anxiety, or eco anxiety.
A terminally sick planet
Research has shown how this is impacting on the mental health of young people because they are the generation who will literally inherit an already terminally sick planet.
In fact, the rise of eco anxiety among young people has been described as “overwhelming and terrifying”.
The physical impact of the climate crisis cannot be ignored any more, but experts warn about a less obvious consequence: the strain on our mental wellbeing, especially that of the younger generation.
As the young Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti said: “We won’t die of old age, we’ll die from climate change.”
Oxford-based clinical psychologist Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams says there is no way to shield young people from the reality of the climate crisis.
In fact, it would be counterproductive.
Parents should talk to their children about their concerns and “help them feel empowered to take action – however small – that can make a difference”.
Rules for dating
And then there is teen dating violence.
Although there are – again – no such studies in South Africa, in the US the Domestic Violence Awareness Project estimates there are about 1,5 million high school students who are at the receiving end of physical abuse from their dating partners.
One can suspect that South African teens will proportionally experience the same.
Parents and teachers must help teens to set the rules for dating, especially when “no” means NO.
In our society, already ravaged by domestic violence, where it may even seem to be normal, teenagers need to be empowered not to become a victim of a violent relationship.
Besides leading to CMDs it can also become a life-threatening situation.
So where to start?
Talking about mental health is never easy, but each of us can make it easier. In fact, make it as easy as talking about any other kind of disease.
We should not talk differently about illnesses just because they are above the neck.
Talking about mental health is the first step in getting help. Also, make sure you don’t talk in a different tone of voice. Would you be talking about the rugby hero’s injury with the same tone of voice or attitude?
According to US statistics about one in five young adults is dealing with mental illness, but as many as half are struggling in silence.
Again, we do not have specific statistics for South Africa, but we do know that almost one in ten teen deaths in South Africa are due to suicide.
So, if you reading here, let’s break the silence.
Let’s break the stigma.
Let’s save all those wonderful lives of our teens out there, filled with so much potential.
One might be sitting right next to you.
Start the conversation.
If you are not sure who to turn to, or feel your teen won't confide in anyone they know, or someone else you know is at risk, encourage them to reach out to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) or call 0800 567 567 or 0800 456 789 any day of the week to speak to a counsellor.
SADAG has trained counsellors available from 8am to 8pm, 7 days a week.
Share your story with us, and we could publish your mail. Anonymous contributions are welcome.