Beyond the romanticisation of teenage illness in art and film is a young population at breaking point – now is the time to begin fixing our failing mental health system for the next gen of adults
“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets,” the doctor asks. “Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl,” replies Cecilia, lying in a hospital bed after her suicide attempt. Nothing encapsulates so perfectly the romanticisation of teenage mental health in popular culture than the opening scene from Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides.
In the film and arts world, you have two gendered concepts: the sad girl aesthetics seen here or the introverted young man (think Brick, United States of Leland or Perks of Being a Wallflower). Tumblr has played a significant role in hammering home these ideas with memes, gifs and romanticised aesthetics; pastel photos of prozac, Lana Del Rey quotes on cigarette boxes and handwritten notes of self-hatred. It’s aspirational.
However, the reality is far more ugly – and apparently invisible – to the adult world.
Last year was a landmark one for acknowledging that as a western society we are ill-equipped to deal with mental health problems. While awareness has been raised about high male suicide rates, the soaring prevalence of anxiety and the lack of services available for treatment, one major issue has been widely sidelined: how the younger generation is suffering. Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder. The number of children with mental health issues who have gone to A&E has doubled. Recent stats revealed that English children are among the most unhappy in the world. English girls came second to bottom in terms of satisfaction with their appearance and self-confidence. New stats show almost half of British teen girls have required help with their mental health. But where is the apparatus in place to help them?
We’re currently experiencing a teenage mental health crisis - and there is next to nothing in place for those affected.
After lunch time at school one day, Jess Kwamin went into the toilets and took an overdose. “I’d never tried to take my own life before. I thought it would be immediate but it wasn’t,” Jess explains. “So I just ended up going into my class and then I passed out on my desk.” She was experiencing trauma-based depression and anxiety from severe bullying at school. She didn’t talk to the teachers about it because she didn’t have to. According to Jess, the bullying and her moods were out in the open so they could see what was going on. But they didn’t offer help or intervene when it came to the behaviour of other children.
There was no intervention at home either. Unless a family has been directly affected by mental health in the past, it’s extremely common for it to never have been mentioned. Jo Loughran from Mind and Rethink Mental Illness-affiliated discrimination campaign, Time To Change, told me that parents often don’t feel fully equipped to have positive conversations about mental health with their children. Jess was no exception to this and culturally, her upbringing added another layer of difficulty.
“My parents are African – mental health is such a taboo subject there,” she said. “The way my family have been brought up, we have no training in mental health. It felt the worst thing was to have a mental health problem or a learning difficulty or something like that.” After her suicide attempt, the family had to negotiate this unspoken issue. “My mum didn’t talk to me for a long time, but I think it was because she felt like she was to blame for it and I don’t think she knew how to address the situation. My dad just overlooked it, I don’t think he really realised the depth of the situation. Me and my dad have never spoken about it.”
When a lack of communication means there’s no obvious protocol at home, the question is: why hasn’t one been implemented at school? Mental health isn’t on the curriculum despite charities and MPs campaigning for it to be included for years. There’s also no specific compulsory teacher training on how to deal with young people with signs of mental health problems; meaning that on the one hand, teens aren’t learning about it, and on the other, the teachers are at risk of seriously harming a child’s mental health through their own lack of understanding.
“When it came to the point where I could come back the school didn’t want me. They were worried about ‘contagion’ and it passing on to other students”
A serious risk comes with the assumption that the internet generation of teens automatically know how to deal with mental health issues when confronted with them. Emma Peacock has bipolar disorder and was 14 when she started getting the lows along with the mania. “Friends didn’t understand. And neither did teachers. If teachers don’t treat it right, it passes on to the students,” she explained.
“I don’t think they were doing it deliberately but when I told friends about my diagnosis, they excluded me.” Jo from Time To Change told me that their research shows that show young people don’t actually understand what mental health is. “Specifically, young people may feel behaviour relating to mental health problems is attention seeking,” she explained. “Our research indicated that 70 per cent of young people had received negative reactions from their friends when disclosing their experience of mental health problems.”
When Emma attempted suicide, she was put into an inpatient hospital. During her time there, she felt let down by her school. “They didn’t make any effort to contact me or my parents. They didn’t ring to see how I was or when I was coming back.”
This lack of understanding from her school became an actively discriminative issue. “When it came to the point where I could come back they didn’t want me.” According to Emma, they were worried about “contagion”.
“They thought that because I was unhappy and self harming it would pass on to my friends, to the whole school. They didn’t want that. I don’t think they wanted to be seen as the school with the ‘issues’.” A school could have followed this incident up by bringing in counsellors or consulting experts, but they tried to bury the problem – to the extent that Emma wasn’t allowed on school premises.
“A very close friend of mine at school took her own life and they wouldn’t let me come in for the memorial service, which upset me a lot. All my friends were mourning together and I was pretty much left to deal with it by myself.” Similarly, after Jess’ suicide attempt, she and her parents had a meeting with the school, and according to her, staff carefully attempted to coerce her out. “School just didn’t want to address it really,” explained Jess. “I sort of got kicked out completely. In the meeting they were like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think this is the best place for you’.”
It’s blindingly evident that a lack of communication at every level – parents, teachers, other teens – is breeding a stigmatised fear, no better than that in the adult world. While Tumblr, pop culture and The Enlightened Internet might suggest teens are decades ahead when it comes to mental health politics, the internet doesn’t equate to real life. Besides the obvious need for schools to be better equipped to deal with their students, and older generations to receive the knock-on effects of destigmatisation to act helpfully as family, what else can be done to help the crisis from spiralling?
Social media platforms are taking more of a responsibility when it comes to flagging up users needing help: Facebook stepped in early last year with a suicide prevention tool and Tumblr now bans pro-eating disorder blogs. In addition, users who search for related tags will be directed to an announcement telling them to seek help. MIND has a decent list of advice for staying well online – such as simply staying off sites a person knows they may find triggering or limiting hours spent online. But censoring isn’t necessarily the answer. Neither is the mass of pseudo-helpful motivational-style quotes or the rise of untrained bloggers offering teens help despite having no psychological training. Bottom line: the internet is a typically double edged sword when it comes to the dissemination of knowledge.
“While pop culture and The Enlightened Internet might suggest teens are decades ahead when it comes to mental health politics, the internet doesn’t equate to real life”
But there’s something in the idea of young people helping other young people. America have long led the way with this concept. Teen Line, founded back in 1980, is a helpline manned by teen volunteers who’ve suffered with illness themselves. They’re in an office responding to texts and emails from 6-10pm - presumably the hours teens are sat at home on their laptops - and are supervised by adult mental health professionals.
“The best advice can often come from people who have been through similar things so if done in a safe way, this could only be a good thing,” explains Elena from Mind, also emphasising the importance of this scenario being safely controlled. With no pressure to talk to someone face-to-face, instead communicating as is natural to teens, this could be a viable option for the UK if the funding was there.
Thankfully, Time to Change, who work alongside charity Young Minds, have put a similar drive into action here. As well as now delivering training in 60 schools across England, they’ve also trained and supported young people with personal experience to co-deliver education sessions with them. Jess is one of those giving the talks. “I have been doing this for two or three years now and when you’re telling them what you’ve been through everyone is so quiet and attentive. Sort of “Wow, I can’t believe someone could go through that”.”
Teens are part of an increasingly emotionally intelligent generation, after all. Half of mental illness in adult life starts before age 15 and 75 per cent by age 18. If it’s going to happen, it’s probably going to happen then. You have to catch people early and give them the help and support they need. As a teenager, this where it all begins. Beyond the pink-hued filters and new age philosophy – in the bedroom, classroom and real world.