by Dr. Tim Sharp (aka Dr Happy)
Just last week, two seemingly unrelated events received considerable attention – the release of the latest Mental Health Report by Mission Australia; and heated discussions about a new Netflix series produced by a number of people including pop-star Selena Gomez.
According to Mission Australia’s report, action on youth mental health is URGENTLY needed due to findings that indicate, among other things, almost one in four young people met criteria for having a serious mental illness. Notably, these same young people indicated that their first port of call when seeking help was friends (followed by parents and the internet).
Catherine Yeomans, Mission Australia’s CEO said “Adolescence comes with its own set of challenges for young people. But we are talking about an alarming number of young people facing serious mental illness; often in silence and without accessing the help they need.”
She went on to say that “We need to ensure young people have the resources they need to manage mental health difficulties, whether it is for themselves or for their peers. Parents, schools and community all play a vital role and we must fully equip them with the knowledge and skills to provide effective support to young people.”
And Professor Helen Christensen, Director of the Black Dog Institute, added “This report shows that young people who need help are seeking it reluctantly, with a fear of being judged continuing to inhibit help-seeking.”
So what we have is a massive problem, where a significant number of young people are suffering and feeling like they can’t reach out and seek help. Stigma is driving these people to the internet where although there’s much good and valid information and many useful resources, there’s also…
…13 Reasons Why.
If you’ve not heard of “13 Reasons Why” then you’ve been living under a rock or you don’t have teenage children. “13 Reasons Why” is a new Netflix series, based on a book released in 2007. In short, it covers the suicide of a young women who before ending her life sends 13 audio-tapes to friends and classmates explaining how and why they contributed to her final actions.
I’m pretty sure the producers of this show had good intentions; and that their aim was to highlight mental ill-health and start a much needed conversation among young people.
But I’m afraid that many experts, myself included, have serious concerns about some of the messages conveyed in this realistic depiction of youth distress including that (1) suicide is seen as a valid and rational way to resolve bullying and distress, (2) revenge and blaming others are seen as good reasons for suicide, and (3) the counsel of parents and teachers was not sought and in fact those who were included seemed disinterested or unwilling to help.
All of these are dangerous untruths that contradict all the messages we really want to be sending which are that it’s OK not to be OK but that difficulties will pass, especially if appropriate support and treatment are sought early on. We do want young people to reach out to friends and family, but in a healthy and constructive way.
So if you or your children have watched this series and are feeling concerned, what can you do?
Firstly, look for warning signs.
These vary from person to person but include prolonged, low mood; significant changes in behaviour and appearance; loss of energy; change of appetite and/or weight loss; excessive worrying; social withdrawal; deterioration in social, occupational or academic performance.
Talk about it!
There’s no doubt that effective treatments for depression and other common mental illnesses are available; but health professionals can only help if and when people come forward. And people (especially young people) don’t come forward and reach out when they’re concerned about being judged negatively. Simple conversations can contribute to people feeling more comfortable about seeking help.
Listen without judgement.
Having a mental health problem is not a sign of weakness or a failing; but rather, it’s a life problem like any other life problem that can, with appropriate help, be addressed and resolved.
Let those who’re suffering know you love and care for them; and that you’ll be there to help.
Guide your child or loved one to professional support.
Most (if not all) schools have great counsellors available; teachers can help; many GP’s are also trained in how to help with mental health problems; and of course clinical psychologists are trained in practical and effective treatments that despite common myths and misconceptions, don’t take years to take effect.
And most of all…do whatever you can to inspire hope.
More than anything, we need to help young people, and anyone who’s suffering, to feel and believe that things can get better. Because they can. Taking positive action will improve almost any situation; and especially with the guidance and support of expert professionals those who’re suffering can indubitably go on to live healthy and productive, happy lives.