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This week is Children’s Mental Health Week (7th-13th February), and this year’s theme is ‘Growing Together’, raising the question of how we encourage our young people to grow and considering also how we can help others around us to grow.
I think we can all agree that the last 24 months have been exceedingly tough for so many. Some people have had to endure hardships like never before. The loss of loved ones, illness, job losses and being unable to see family and friends at a time when these connections were most needed…The list goes on and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of what people have gone through during these ‘unprecedented’ (a word we have heard all too often) times.
As an adult it has been incredibly hard to take in and process the effect that the change in the world has had on us over these past years, so you can only imagine how this has impacted our young people. Young people already in a position where they are trying to make sense of an often-nonsensical world; throw a sprinkling of pandemic on top and it’s got to ignite fears and anxieties, even in those who once seemed so carefree.
The young brain is exposed to so much in our current model of the world, so not to consider the mental health of our future generations now could perhaps lead to the next pandemic waiting in the wings. In fact, I think it may even be in rehearsals coming to a theatre near you if we don’t consider rewriting the script.
Our young people have so many external influences to consider in everyday life now. There is a constant image of who they should be, how they should feel, how they should look and a conflict between what choices to make with an endless stream of social media at their fingertips – an unrealistic reality that never sleeps.
Often the young people I work with get as little as 3-4 hours sleep each night, enslaved to the digital temptations on offer throughout the night, for fear of missing out on something or losing their connection to the world as they know it.
Now more than ever it is so important that we find time to listen to young people and truly hearing them, not always an easy task when they are umbilically attached to their phone! But we owe it to them to continue trying, as gone are the days of local youth groups and places where young people could go to express themselves in a safe environment, one that still allowed them to grow into the people they are becoming. Instead, they have the looming threats of street gangs that offer them this sense of purpose, misplaced security and belonging.
In his book ‘Lost Connections’ Johann Hari speaks of how we no longer hold the societal connections we once did and how this is having a huge impact, leading to the high levels of depression and anxiety we are now seeing globally. He explores how we have become more isolated in our environments and no longer draw on the human connections that were present in previous generations; children playing in the street, neighbours chatting, a smile from a chance encounter with a stranger! In the age of technology, we have become reliant on external devices to feed our visceral need to feel loved, connected, and whole. The problem is he suggests, these are perhaps not enough and leave us feeling empty and starved of the care and compassion that can only be felt through the building of relationships that help to encourage growth.
It is easy to focus on the negatives when it comes to thinking about recent times and the future of the next generation, however there is always something positive if we look hard enough and don’t lose faith. Young people are amazingly resilient and can bounce back from the hardest of knocks – especially when they have the right mix of love and support to guide them through the tough times. The idea that the ‘you’ in the future looking back could find some valuable lessons learnt from these darker days is one that gives me hope. When one door closes, does it in fact lead to another being opened that we wouldn’t have seen had this one not been closed? Has COVID given us the opportunity to reconnect with each other? Let’s not just leave looking in on our vulnerable neighbour or chatting over the fence to a distant memory pigeonholed to this period of lockdown. Let’s make it a new reality that we carry forward; let’s teach our children the importance of community and human connection.
We owe it to our young people to search out the positives and teach them how to embrace growth, even if at times it seems tough. We can work together to teach them that not being ok all the time is ok. That looking after our mental health is in fact as important as our physical health. If we as adults are not advocating this then how can we expect our children to have the strength to speak out without the fear of appearing weak?
In a study conducted by ‘Place2Be’ charity 30% of parents revealed they would feel embarrassed if they felt they needed to ask for help regarding their child’s mental health. However, 15% of parents regarded their child’s mental health to be poor and 31% believed it to be worse now than before the pandemic. Even though there has been some progress made in recent years, there still seems to be a stigma attached to poor mental health and the need for help, so we still have some way to go.
Teaching our young people how to look after and be aware of their mental health is surely a form of safeguarding that will help them to survive in the world today? If we can’t entirely shield them from the things that can cause them harm, we can certainly work with them to ensure they have an empowering toolkit to carry along the way.
When I spoke with some young people recently here are a few of the comments they gave me regarding their thoughts and feelings about the pandemic, the affect it has had on them and their mental health.
‘I felt scared for my family and was scared they would die’
‘Being at home for so long was lonely and even though I spoke to people on the phone it wasn’t the same’
‘Not being able to see my friends for so long made me feel like an outsider and when we were able to get together again, I felt like my friends had left me out. These days I feel like I must rely on myself more’
‘Sharing a room with my brother during this time was sometimes hard’
‘I helped my family and friends by being kind to them and I wrote letters to my cousin when we couldn’t see each other’
‘I was worried going back to school as I was starting to a new school, this worried me more than the virus itself’
‘I liked being able to stay at home and play my computer but without technology I would have struggled’
There really are so many ways in which we all dealt the effects of the last couple of years and, as always, no one approach is going to suit everyone. Technology gave most of us opportunities to feel less isolated during the pandemic, with zoom quizzes, gaming with friends or crazy isolation tiktoks; it allowed us to feel involved and not so far away from our loved ones. Also, lots of people called on some more old-school ways of feeling that connection, writing letters, volunteering to help those less fortunate or just getting a pint of milk for your neighbour. Perhaps moving forward, we can aspire to create a suitable equilibrium? It would be silly to suggest that technology doesn’t bring us great things, however, could we combine this with some of our more traditional values, beliefs, and behaviours to help our young people grow up in a more caring, well-rounded society where their happiness and sense of self isn’t determined by an Instagram story and how many likes it receives.
Now more than ever it is necessary for us ALL to pull together so that we can grow together. Doing a kind deed for someone, without the expectation of any return is something that allows us to feel pleasure on a meaningful level. It gives us long term emotional gain, rather than the quick fix of pleasure, the dopamine hit we would get from perhaps buying something materialistic for ourselves (although I agree – we all like nice things). If we can teach ourselves and our young people this and continue to pass it on in any small way, surely the affect can only be positive?
It would be unrealistic of us to think that we can remove all the stresses in our and our young people’s lives. Therefore, building resilience is key to dealing with life’s problems; in fact, in safe doses, stress can help us to build this. The stress response is part of our neurological programming and has been so since the beginning of time; in the modern world however it can often be over-activated and can result in anxiety (a very simplified explanation!). Anxiety is something that more and more people are experiencing, adults and children alike. At least 80% of the people I work with are or have experienced it on a level that they feel is affecting the quality of their life. Perhaps if we could work together – as a family, friendship group or as classmates – we could go some way to overcoming its effects?
Simply talking about our worries can offer a surprising sense of support and relief. Breathing techniques can help to relax the nervous system and restore calm. Even taking a sip of water is proven to send a message to the part of the brain that believes its under attack when anxiety sets in, immediately lessening the impact. If we give mental health the attention it deserves and focus on the areas where we CAN make positive change with and for each other, we can move forward into a more united space.
What positive action can you take that will help you and those you love on your journey of growth? Perhaps this story from the late Thich Nhat Hanh will provide some inspiration, as it did to me and the team at Grow.
When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or our family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and arguments. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.
One day in Paris, I gave a lecture about not blaming the lettuce. After the talk, I was doing walking meditation by myself, and when I turned the corner of a building, I overheard an eight-year-old girl telling her mother, “Mommy, remember to water me. I am your lettuce.” I was so pleased that she had understood my point completely. Then I heard her mother reply. “Yes, my daughter, and I am your lettuce also. So please don’t forget to water me too.” Mother and daughter practicing together, it was very beautiful.
If you would like to find out more on how to work together at tackling mental health issues when they arise, there are some amazing resource packs provided at https://www.childrensmentalhealthweek.org.uk/
If you feel you or your children would benefit from some help regarding mental wellbeing you can also contact us at Grow here https://growtherapeuticcoaching.co.uk/.
We will be able to put you in touch with one of our trained therapists.
Or visit https://www.qchpa.com/therapist-finder/#!directory/map/ord=rnd for a full list of Quest Institute Trained Therapists.
Artwork credit: Josie Londt-James