Help­ing teens through tough times


Good Health (Australia) - - Contents -

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 bookde­pos­i­ Love Out Loud by Ni­cole Gib­son. $22.72, or­der on­line at nicoleg­ib­

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