The rise in mental health issues is of great concern within our wider community, though none more so than the increase in mental health prevalence among our youth. We now have years’ worth of quality data collected from various creditable organisations, which consistently report that around one in four adolescents are presenting with mental health issues, including ongoing anxiety and depression. More alarming is that this statistic is rising and the situation worsening, even compared to data from four or five years ago. Many young people do not seek intervention or assistance, particularly in the earlier stages of experiencing their burden, which is too often borne alone. Whilst the stigma of mental health is diminishing slowly over time, it is far from removed from society, which contributes to the reluctance to seek help. Students may be happy for the instrumental music tutor to turn up to their regular class to remind them of their private lesson, but no one wants the school counsellor to do the same!
Why are we facing such a prevalence of mental health in young people? This is not easy to answer and there are a number of perspectives that can be attributed to this growth. However, some factors are clearer and, from my perspective, these include:
- almost ubiquitous access to the internet and particularly to social media;
- the decline in authentic in-person socialisation as opposed to superficial digital connectivity, resulting in feelings of isolation and exclusion;
- the emergence of over-protective parents who leap to the aid of their children, albeit with the best of intentions to protect, but in doing so ‘prepare the road for the child’ instead of ‘preparing the child for the road’. Our youngest generation is seriously lacking resilience, and resilience can only occur through experience, as we are not born with it;
- the decline in physical activity, especially team sports, which have benefits for physical, social and emotional health;
- stress caused by a variety of stimuli and contributed to by ‘perfection-seeking’ personas presented to young people everywhere. All too often these are a distortion on reality that the adult brain (mostly) evaluates but the adolescent one does not, believing they should emulate the expectation of perfection. This leads to other destructive patterns such as a fixed mindset; and
- excessively busy parents, working extended hours, full-time, who are challenged to ‘be present’ to have quality time with teenagers in particular (guilty!), who in turn appear conveniently busy, often on their devices.
Of course, other factors contribute too and I have only touched on some of the environmental ones and not the biological contributors, and I appreciate these are just some influences, not all.
As the saying goes, ‘Know what, so what, now what?’ Now that we have reliable widespread data which validates what educators, medical professionals and parents are ‘seeing’, it is time to really hone in on what will alleviate, though not eradicate, this burden on our young people, especially during their school-age years. I think that many of us who grew up in a very different environment and era, pre-internet in particular, are somewhat challenged to deeply appreciate the new paradigm of adolescence, as our conceptualisation is predominantly intellectual, not emotionally experienced. The experience for many parents and more mature educators involved:
- a lot of sporting participation;
- the independence to resolve issues and challenges without much parental involvement, other than perhaps advice;
- being forced to create ways to be entertained, imaginatively or socially
- most importantly, we were able to ‘go home’ and leave the wider world behind us as we entered a safe place where others did not have the means to access us after hours; and
- we had age-appropriate developmental exposure, rather than excessively early access to mature content and extreme expectations to look, think or act a certain way.
Adolescence is a challenging time on its own and our modern world has amplified the challenge.
In terms of ‘now what’, I do believe there are strategies to employ that alleviate some of the issues. At SMGS we are working towards improving our wellbeing focus for students. Part of our Mission statement includes ‘… developing well-rounded young people’ and I think this is a key point not to be lost.
As many of you will already be aware, we have re-positioned our staffing structure at a senior leadership level to have a Director of Wellbeing this year, which evolved from the Head of Senior School role, previously focused on bothwellbeing and all day-to-day operations, to now fully focus on wellbeing. In this role, Mrs Wilson is leading a wellbeing team which is evaluating our programs to further strengthen them, including identifying and implementing a new school-wide wellbeing framework to commence in 2020. We have also employed in the new structure a Director of Activities, also at executive level, Mr Philpott, to really focus on establishing a wide range of activities and sports for students to ‘balance’ their educational focus. House activities (i.e. pride) is another means of connecting with purpose.
We have provided students with wellbeing surveys in Day and Boarding (Years 7 to 12) which give students a voice and provide us with rich information to consider and respond where needs arise if we haven’t already identified them ourselves as staff. Our wellbeing teams meet fortnightly to focus on improving the schooling and residential experience for all students from K to 12. Another new development is a Learning Service program to encourage students to think about others, not just be absorbed in their own needs, and to enable them to gain perspective. Our new school values developed by students for 2019 (Courage, Authenticity, Respect, Empathy – CARE) provide a common language and foundation for how we expect to interact with one another day to day. We also have strategic and operational initiatives and programs in place and are presently working on these to strengthen them or add to them in the near future, because this area is critical if our young people are to flourish in life now and well into the future. I wish to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of our staff, who continually strive to ensure that all our students have the best experience they possibly can, while growing into their own selves.
Let’s remember, it takes far less energy to be yourself and it is the only way to develop authentic self-worth and to be truly content in life; it takes far greater energy to try to emulate someone else, live up to other people’s expectations and never get there.