Helping teens through tough times
YOUTH DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY ARE ON THE RISE, AND IT CAN BE HARD TO KNOW HOW TO OFFER SUPPORT. HERE TWO EXPERTS SHARE TOOLS FOR HELPING TEENS THROUGH THE DIFFICULT TIMES
Whether you’ve been there yourself or supported someone through it, depression and anxiety are difficult things for anyone to cope with. But when you’re a young adult trying to navigate your way in the world, adding mental health issues to the mix can make life almost impossible to fathom.
It’s well documented that anxiety and depression rates are on the rise in Australia, New Zealand and much of the developed world, but it’s not just among adults – it’s a worrying trend that’s affecting young people as well. Regardless of age, gender or economic status, the number of teens experiencing mental health issues is soaring.
Australian health charity Beyond
Blue says research suggests three in four adult mental health conditions emerge by age 24, and half by age 14. The organisation estimates that one in 35 young Australians aged between four and 17 experience a depressive disorder, and in the same age bracket, one in 14 people experienced an anxiety disorder in 2015. That’s the equivalent of approximately 278,000 young people in Australia battling anxiety issues in a year, and experts say on a global scale, mental health concerns are set to become the world’s biggest health pandemic by 2020.
So how do you support a young person who is struggling with issues such as depression or anxiety, or just the stresses of modern life? We talked to authors Nicole Gibson and Megan Street, both in their 20s themselves, who are leading the charge to end the prevailing stigma and engage teens in meaningful talk about mental health.
Feeling the pressure
Ask Melbourne-based high school teacher Megan Street what she thinks is helping to drive mental health stats through the roof, and she doesn’t take long to come up with an answer. Social media, she believes, is a key factor behind body image issues and low self-esteem among many teens, especially girls.
“One thing I’m noticing a lot is how girls are changing their features with filters and apps in their photos on Instagram,” she says. “The images they are posting aren’t even real, and this is what they are constantly comparing themselves to. These images in a newsfeed are like a highlights reel, but it’s easy to forget that and think it’s everyday normality.”
When Street recently wrote her first book, Well, This is Growing Up, she saw it as a way of not only engaging with teenagers on the topic of their mental health and self-esteem, but also as a gentle guide to some basic life skills that are vital for us all, but rarely taught.
“There are things in the book like how to make friends, ways to get along with others, tips on how to listen to people and be genuinely interested in how someone is,” Street, 25, explains. “When I was writing the book I wanted it to sound like sitting down and talking with a friend. Yes there’s a bit of swearing in there, but that’s relatable!”
Nicole Gibson, formerly
Australia’s youngest Commonwealth Commissioner for Mental Health, has a different take when it comes to why more teens and young people are»
Social media, she believes, is a key factor behind body image issues and low self-esteem
facing depression and anxiety. Her own extensive research – which involved living in a van for two years while she drove throughout Australia talking to communities about mental health − pointed to a lack of knowledge around dealing with change that left many people struggling to cope.
“I see a massive correlation in the rates of mental health issues and suicide in young people, and not having the right processes to help initiate them into adulthood, deal with change in a healthy way, and understand their responsibilities in the community,” Gibson explains.
“I think change and transition isn’t something that we have known processes around in modern day culture. A lot of the way we cope with change revolves around distraction, whether it’s using alcohol or burying ourselves in work. Whereas if you look throughout history, there have been marked initiations around change points in a person’s life.”
Developing skills to cope with life’s transitions is a key theme of Gibson’s new book, Love Out Loud (LOL) – A Millennial’s Guide to Enlightenment. The book, which includes an online course, also looks at aspects like acceptance, recreating an identity, gratitude and healing.
“Everyone is unique,” says Gibson,
25, “but in terms of what we crave, it all comes back to love. Everyone wants to be seen and heard, feel like they’re loved and that they can do something they love.”
Breaking down the barriers
In recent years, there have definitely been positive changes in attitudes towards mental health. But persistent stigma and misconceptions on the topic are still major stumbling blocks to getting help.
“Often with teens, it’s not wanting to be a burden on anyone,” says Street. “In turn, they’re putting too much pressure on themselves. I’ve heard young people say things like, ‘I’m really struggling and I think I’m depressed, but I can’t tell my parents as they want me to go well in school.’”
And while public health campaigns have made inroads into decreasing the stigma, Gibson says we need to go a step further. “It’s more socially known, but have [health campaigns] made you feel more equipped to have those hard conversations with a friend who is suicidal? I would argue that a lot of the campaigns over the years haven’t necessarily taught people those fundamental skills in communication.”
As rates of mental illness continue to rise, the question of how to tackle the issue is all too often placed in the ‘too hard’ basket. There’s no doubt there’s a clear need for extra support in the mental health sector, but Gibson believes the most significant and sustainable change will come when society alters its view on the way we care for ourselves and others.
“Mental health is no different to physical health in the sense that we need to have everyday practices, individually but also as a community, that maintain positive mental health.”
‘It all comes back to love. Everyone wants to be seen and heard, feel like they are loved and that they can do something they love’
‘Sit there, be there, and show that you’re there for them. Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing’
How to help
The idea of talking to teens (or anyone for that matter) about mental health issues is daunting and difficult territory for most of us. So how do you show support to a young person struggling to cope?
Gibson, who also runs the youth charity Rogue and Rouge, says it helps to depersonalise the topic.
“When someone is going through a tough time, I think one of the greatest gifts you can give to someone is to not make them feel like they are different, weird, or that they need to be ‘fixed’. Giving them space to feel what they are going through is the first step to moving forward.”
Through her experience working in the mental health sector, Gibson says it’s common for parents to feel guilty for what a child is experiencing, but being clouded by emotions can make things worse.
“This makes it hard to approach the situation selflessly, as you’re caught up in your own emotional charge around it,” she says. “When someone is going through a struggle, what they need more than anything is a safe place where they can lay it all on the table and come to terms with things.”
Street says the most important thing for a young person is to know they have a ‘champion’ who genuinely cares for their wellbeing. “If someone is struggling, I would say sit down one on one with them, ask them how they are going, and let them know you care,” she says. “Just being there can be a powerful thing. Sit there, be there, and show that you’re there for them. Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing – it’s about letting them know that someone is with them.”
At her regular talks with school groups, one of the key messages Street puts across is that challenges and dark times will pass.
“The best way out is always through,” she says. “I think that’s really important, to trust that things will get better. Also, encouraging teens to do regular exercise, try mindfulness and meditation, or keep a gratitude diary are all really helpful.”
And for teens and young people, Gibson says another key aspect is encouraging them to find something they love and to follow their dreams.
“There’s a fundamental belief in society that very few people are able to do what they love in life, and that’s just not true. The people that go after what they want in life get it – it’s just having the perseverance to ride out the challenging times.”
Well, This is Growing Up by Megan Street. Sid Harta Publishers, $24.95. Order online at bookdepository.com. Love Out Loud by Nicole Gibson. $22.72, order online at nicolegibson.com.au.