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Young minds of the future, hanging in balance

A look at some ways that 'young people' are affected by 'mental health in a changing world', hoping to further awareness and eliminate the stigma surrounding the subject, on World Mental Health Day.

Nafaahath Ibrahim
10 October 2018, MVT 17:08
Illustration representing the various faces of young men and women struggling with societal, physical issues that have a psychological effect on their lives and can have lasting impacts on their mental health. IMAGE: COLLAGE BY RAE MUNAVVAR / THE EDITION
Nafaahath Ibrahim
10 October 2018, MVT 17:08

Young people, particularly those going through adolescence, are typically characterised as being full of angst and apprehension. It seems only natural, being such a precarious phase of growth, to face a fair amount of confusion and distress, as one explores concepts such as their own identities, searching for a purpose in life and a meaning to it all.

Though we adults may often wonder what kids at that age could possibly have to worry about, the answers may well unsettle you.

According to the World Health Organization, half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 and often go undetected and untreated. While depression is the third most burdening disease, suicide is determined to be the second leading cause of death among 15 - 29-year-olds.

Most of us recall the transition from teenager to a young adult as being a hard one. Along with physical changes, young people experience a lot of psychological changes as well.

Several first times take place during this period. Graduating from college or university, attaining jobs or internships, and the formation of new romantic or friendly relationships, to name just a few.

If that weren’t enough, the pressure to succeed and excel can be unbearable. Competition levels among students are higher than ever. Instead of attaining realistic personal goals, students are simply expected to be better than the rest. Parents, whether intentionally or otherwise, constantly pit children against one another or compare their own to more successful achievers.

Adding to the flames are an excess of hormones driving desires to try new experiences and experiment with new ideas. The spontaneity that surrounds young decision making is such that one may flit from trying out smoking, to popping a dangerous pill that leaves users with life-long consequences, without a moment's hesitation.

It is baffling how readily harmful substances are available in our community while seeking treatment is next to impossible. Furthermore, if you have ever been associated with substance abuse, you are forever seen with that label.

Such outdated outlooks need to change. We need to evolve and become more accepting and willing to provide help and support. Help needs to be more readily available if we want to make a difference. Considering that populations most vulnerable to these ill effects are the future of our nation, it is vital that we reorient our approach to youth, in general.

Thanks to the heightened globalization, we can no longer shelter our youth from the harsh realities of the world. Young people spend a large portion of their time on the internet. While there is much positivity in the immense shared knowledge cyberspace provides, we cannot ignore that war, poverty, abuse and other graphic triggering content is just a few swipes away.

By now hopefully, I've provided some idea of a few factors that may contribute to the prevalence of mental health issues among youth.

Since mental illness already comes with its fair share of stigma, and already hard enough a battle on a global front, it is unsurprisingly much harder within our local community. Explaining how bipolar disorder is an illness akin to anaemia or diabetes and other physically evident diseases, is not an easy task.

However, one thing in favour of this fight is that our youth demonstrate more openness and willingness than ever to partake in new conversations and accept ideas and suggestions. Safe to say, mental health is a lot more acceptable among younger age groups than their older counterparts.

Nevertheless, the struggle is far from over.

According to a local psychiatrist, one very important thing we need to change is the negative outlook people have regarding the slippery, and fragile phase where teenagers evolve into young adults. The mental health expert suggested that instead, we should as a society, work to associate this age with positive emotions like hope and optimism.

Indeed, before and after adolescence marks a stage in life where many lasting decisions are made. Without a doubt, having a positive outlook can change where someone is headed with their life.

Of course, it cannot be a one-man job. When it comes to the mental health of the youth, you really cannot place the blame on a single side and be done with the issue. Various groups of people are involved and it is crucial that they work together.

For instance in most cases, at this time of one's life, interactions with parents and other family occur on a daily basis. Lack of familial support, having to deal with major family issues or not getting affection from one's family are all detrimental to one's mental health. However, because there is a generation gap, it can be harder for parents to understand and interpret the emotions of their children.

In our community, "talking about your feelings” is often regarded as being a weird thing to do, especially for boys. Why would you do that, right? Is there any need for it? That is probably how most would think. Yet it is needed now more than ever. After all, if you do not know what the problem is, how can you possibly be expected to make things better?

Of course, it would concern a parent if their child was being unusually silent or not eating well. You would proceed to ask if anything is wrong, expecting a certain kind of answer. According to most experts, what you really need to do is break those expectations. Be open to what may come. Whether your child is having a physical or a mental problem, be equally concerned. Be ready to rush your child to the emergency room whether he or she is vomiting or having a panic attack.

Keeping young people engaged and empowered is one way to approach the problem. Due to their age and lack of worldly experience, young people's opinions and ideas are often dismissed. Instead, may I suggest utilizing those ideas. Give them the mic and podium. Let their voices be heard. Make them feel like they are important. Above all, let them know they matter and that we do need them.

In contrast, older teenagers and those on the cusp of adulthood, spend most of their time in school, college or university and away from parents. A lot of specific issues faced by this segment of youth arise from within these institutions.

It could be the pressure to look as good as other students. For many, the idea that a person needs to fit a particular mould to be beautiful can have disastrous effects, and it trickles down to younger ages as well. Another is the need to score sky-high grades to prove your intelligence and to be able to attain a prestigious job. The pressure to keep up is intense, sometimes while having to work and study simultaneously. Teachers, counsellors, advisors and even employers, play an important role in helping these young people achieve a healthy balance and preventing stress factors from overwhelming them.

The point is, a door to communication should always be open when it comes to dealing with youth. Whether it is a parent, sibling, teacher, employer or friend, young people should feel like they can approach an adult figure and talk, instead of sweeping their feelings under a rug.

It is quite concerning that most parents and teachers in our society do not know how to detect, let alone help, someone suffering from a mental illness. If problems are recognized in early stages, help can be offered, and further decline can be prevented.

Mental health experts advocate building resilience. The goal could be to acquire strength to face potential problems before they emerge. Parents should focus more on communication and building a real connection with their children. Rather than sheltering them from the cold truth, try being honest. Certainly, there is a lot to be said for showing your children how to deal with the problems and helping them find solutions.

Now that the conversation is slowly catching the attention of people, it is time for the next step, which is to raise awareness, curb the stigma, and provide the proper help to those suffering in silence.

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