Many of us – adults, and young people alike – are struggling with the effects of the last 15 months. To better understand these challenges, I spoke to a variety of professionals, trained in dealing with mental health, who offer their own interesting takes on why so many people are suddenly ‘suffering’ with mental health problems and tips and tricks on how to deal with it.
Jerry Bubrick, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, believes that mental health cases within young people are on the up because some of the anxiety that young people are experiencing may be inadvertently passed on by worried parents and worried adults in the media. Bubrick says:
“The treatment for anxiety isn’t to make the fear go away, it’s to manage the fear and tolerate uncertainty… If we’re showing our kids catastrophic thinking and head-in-your-hands worry, and crying and fear, then they’re going to learn that’s the way to handle the times now.”
However, Jerry explained to me that, in some cases, young people may actually be better equipped to handle these types of scenarios than many adults will be. He goes on:
“So, for the kids who have been in treatment for this, it is like they have an immune response, or they are vaccinated against uncertainty. They have been training for this and now they are able to put their skills in place and for many of them the coronavirus is not affecting them as much as those of us who are not used to dealing with uncertainty on a daily level.”
It is certainly plausible that anxiety can be brought on second-hand by our environment and our elders. If my mum were ever stressed out when I was a child, it would leave me feeling anxious about her. Although, I did not really know what anxiety was at the time.
Yet so many children do today; is that because there are more children with mental health issues? Is there more awareness? Is it because it has been romanticised by the media? Or is it just because we have more education about it today?
Sean Maywood, a teacher and Mental Health first aider for PwC, believes there is an accumulation of reasons why anxiety and depression diagnoses are on the up. Although, looking at the statistics, it was rising before the first lockdown. He said:
“Uncertainty is a massive driver of anxiety. This year, students have had to deal with no school, exams, no exams, just coursework, scrap that we’re doing exams… It’s a mess right now.”
So, if uncertainty is the reason for anxiety, why were mental health diagnoses on the rise before last year? Sean went on to say:
“I really do think this could also be due to a rise in knowledge of anxiety. Of course, we have known about health issues before, but they haven’t been fully supported. Talking about Mental Health has been stigmatised for a while. When we compare mental and physical health, mental health always comes with negative connotations. When we describe someone’s health as “mental” we assume mental ill health and not good health.”
Mental health, in any respect, is discussed much more openly today, thanks to social media and Mental Health Awareness Month (MHAM). Although MHAM has gotten a lot of attention over the last few years, it was actually created in 1949 by the Mental Health America organisation to raise awareness.
Many have criticised popular television shows for glamourising and romanticising mental health issues. Programmes like ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘Orange is the New Black’ portray characters living with mental health issues that a lot of people have. Additionally, there is an umbrella of documentaries on Amazon Prime and Netflix, as well as popular YouTube stars talking about battles with their own mental health issues.
So, is this glamorising mental health? Are we starting to live in an age where young people are desperate to label themselves? Maywood disagrees:
“Is it fashionable? No, I don’t think so. But I think we should be educating [young people on] what are normal levels of healthy anxiety and ill levels of anxiety. Without simple education and understanding of what an individual needs in terms of support and maybe even possible medication, a lot of people self-diagnose. It’s so easy to watch or read something you relate to, and suddenly you’re reading every web page on google diagnosing yourself with a mental health disorder, and not recognising that feelings you’re feeling are totally normal. It’s all about context. Feeling slightly anxious because you have an exam, or because you’re competing in sports day is one thing. Everyone gets nervous, it’s about educating children what normal healthy levels of feeling nervous really is.”
But what about those young people that do have suspected or diagnosed disorders? There may be some young people that have self-diagnosed, but the spectrum of mental health is so broad and wide, how do we combat dealing with it in a classroom?
Emily Gearing, a life coach, mindfulness practitioner, podcaster, youth mental health first aider and founder of The Rest Easy Method had this to say:
“Students need to be able to recognise how they’re feeling & understand why. Often, they may feel angry, anxious or sad but why is this? Naming the emotion & exploring it in more depth helps develop self-awareness. It also helps to prevent issues occurring in the future & supplies the opportunity to look for solutions. Journaling is an effective way of exploring emotions – writing down how they feel & why is a good place to start. “
There are loads of methods out there that can help with anxiety. Rest Easy Training is a company that devotes itself to teaching mindfulness, emotional intelligence, resilience, empathy and self-awareness to children via workshops and one-to-one sessions. This year, all of The Inspirational Learning Group’s challenges have been created to include at least one session to supply students and staff a platform to discuss feelings in a calm way. It encourages a culture of belonging, emotional safety, and empathy within the school setting.
Gearing notes that seeing the emotion as temporary is essential in learning how to manage difficult feelings or situations.
“Viewing emotions as waves can help. Imaging them rising, reaching a peak, then sinking is a great life skill to master. If students develop self-awareness of when the emotion is rising it will help them to allow it to pass. This sort of observation of emotions encourages a balanced perspective and a chance to separate themselves from the emotion.”
However, recalling what Sean Maywood discussed earlier, being mindful not to label students is also important. A person may experience anxious feelings, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have anxiety. A student may feel sad or low for a while, but it doesn’t always mean they have depression. Knowing that emotions are all part of our human experience can help. It is natural to feel angry, worried, low or sad at times, and young people can learn how to manage these feelings, so they don’t get stuck.
So, what advice can be given to help students and teachers in the classrooms when suffering with anxious or uncomfortable feelings? Emily advises:
“Doing deep breathing whilst experiencing negative emotions can reduce the intensity of them, help students to feel grounded & allow the emotions to move through. When they have negative emotions, they link negative thoughts to them. These thoughts can be racing & repetitive. Taking an opportunity to pause allows the brain to have space to look at other options”.
It’s important to STOP & then THINK as this helps people to view situations from the opposite perspective. Students can ask themselves “Is there another way of looking at this?” or “What would the solution be here?” rather than focusing on the problem & the negative thoughts.”
“The key for teachers is to help students to allow their feelings to come & allow them to go without being too attached to them. Encouraging them to “do it scared” for example is an effective way of helping them through tricky situations.”
As the mindful guru Jon Kabat Zinn said, “We can’t stop the waves from coming but we can learn to surf them.”
REST EASY Training offers a whole school approach to mental health, Practitioner Training, PSHCE lessons, 1:1 or Group Intervention Sessions & Parent Workshops. For more information visit www.resteasytraining.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org