In the past mental health has focussed on depression and while this remains a concern for many, anxiety has increasingly emerged as the most common mental health difficulty for young people today. The Irish charity and youth mental health service Jigsaw earlier this year reported that 39% of those who contacted the organisation were suffering from anxiety. This experience is echoed elsewhere with an increase in numbers of teens and young adults with anxiety also evident in the UK and the US but interestingly, not necessarily at the same rate more globally.
So what might it be about our environment and culture, and particularly in the Western word, that is making our young people so anxious?
Here are a few factors that may be contributing to this trend:
Impact of Technology
While we are more digitally connected we are all less connected to each other and this is more so the case for young people who have grown up in the era of rapid advancement in social technology. While social media has very many upsides including the capacity to be connected to a large network of friends it can foster hyper vigilance around keeping up to date, as well as remaining included in everything that is going on in these multiple social networks. Also, much of social media encourages curation where young people can feel pressured to present the version of themselves they most want others to see and this can be out of alignment with how they feel or how they experience themselves. All of this is compounded by pressure to be successful, to achieve, to be in the right social networks, to have the ‘right’ look, style, body shape and the constant, round the clock nature of all of this is immense pressure to withstand and manage.
Loss of Community Support
Changes in societal structures have occurred more rapidly in the Western world than in more traditional societies and some of the implications of this has been loss of relationships with for example, family arising from an increase in marriage and relationship breakdown, or due to movement away from the nuclear family structure for reasons such as college, work and career progression. Also we now often have little contact with our neighbours and there is less involvement in religious communities both of which also in the past provided frameworks of support to our youth.
In a vicious cycle anxiety impacts on our ability to get enough restful sleep at night. And when we cant sleep we tend to reach for TV, laptops or other electronic gadgets to pas the time and all of which has the opposite of the desired effect and just make our brains more alert. Most people now sleep with at least one device near their bed (who owns an alarm clock any more?) and young people will receive constant newsfeeds and updates from social media channels right through the night as well as all day. Quality uninterrupted sleep helps boosts immune function, enhances learning and memory and contributes to emotional well being and conversely the absence of this damages wellbeing and contributes to anxiety.
Good parenting should help a child to gradually take on the challenges associated with living in an adult world. Over intensive parenting however can stymie the natural development of a young persons capacity to venture into and negotiate the world in their own way and can leave them unable to cope with social and other environmental situations that arise along the way. The natural development from childhood to adulthood involves a gradual moving away from parental influence, towards their peers and towards increased self-reliance. If we fail to enable this development, we can leave our teenagers and adolescents unsure and anxious and fearful of making a mistake and thus do them no favours.
So what can we do to help them?
Understanding the contributory factors is a great place to start and practical changes like taking time out from technology, spending real face to face time with family and friends and attending to physical wellbeing will reap rewards. Our young people are smart, articulate and immensely capable and we must also trust them in a supportive way and give them the autonomy to make decisions around their own lives unless it is unsafe to do so. Regarding their psychological wellbeing it is thankfully becoming increasingly acceptable to acknowledge mental health difficulties and access to supports and resources, while still inadequate, are improving all the time.
For example, see here for more information and tips around coping with Anxiety.
Also if you, or any young person you know needs help with Anxiety or any other issues causing emotional distress or needs to Find a Therapist for professional help see CounsellingandTherapy.com for more information and a source of Verified Counsellors and Psychotherapists in Ireland.