Why so many young people are struggling?
By Dr Bibiana Chan
This is the title of an article by Dr Noam Shpancer (a practising clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio, USA) published in Psychology Today in March 2023. His key messages were: new data indicate that young people (regardless of their gender) are languishing, global and cultural circumstances may be facilitating the decline in youth’s mental health, and today’s young people may encounter more stress but also be more emotionally vulnerable.
I reflect on the last 3 years of COVID-19, social isolation or disconnection is the No. 1 culprit. There are more complex factors such as witnessing a parent or other adult in their home losing a job (29% CDC 2021). I recalled as a teenager myself facing one of my parent’s extremely challenging work circumstances, it definitely made me anxious.
Climate change may also be a factor – Mission Australia’s 2022 reported over 26% of the 18,800 young people (aged 15 – 19 yr.) surveyed were ‘very’ or ‘extremely concerned about climate change.
Social Media and excessive screen time during COVID-19 lockdown also contributed to lack of face-to-face interaction with people. There is a recent Australian Story reporting a pilot study to help teenage boys manage their gaming time which appeared to have taken over their lives. Collaborating with German researchers, Dr Warburton, from Macquarie University, has devised a three-month program to help these teenagers.
I’m well aware of the addictive nature of social media. When I first started a Facebook account in 2007, soon after I completed my PhD study, I was very keen to invite my friends to sign up. I sent a disclaimer along with the invitation, ‘Highly addictive, join at your own risk!’ According to Dr Shpancer, social media are addictive by design: they remove the user from the live company of other people. I find it very interesting to learn that social media also exposes users to an unrelenting stream of information which conveys the extremes (either negative like terror, crime, mayhem we fear or positive like beautiful rich people or places we envy). The unintended consequence is that young people experience heightened level of stress (there is too much to process) and envy (“I can never measure up”).
‘Helicopter Parenting’ can be playing a part too. Parental over-involvement may be having the effect of making kids more anxious rather than more secure. Once again, the unintended consequence is that children often experience parental over-protection not as love (my mum cares about me) , but as doubt (my mum believes I can‘t handle it). Such parental doubt may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, turning into self-doubt.
In Australia, Prof. Ian Hickie shared in LinkedIn his concern about the rising prescriptions to treat anxiety and depression in children. He attributed one of the reasons as ‘not enough psychologists available to help them with other treatment options like behavioural and social interventions.’
I believe we need to fundamentally change the way the available workforce of clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health nurses, social workers, OTs and others with skills is coordinated. We need the experts to undertake assessments, so that young people are triaged appropriately to the right care, the first time. Once a young person has been assessed, then we can provide those who need medication and more complex care the care they need and we can help other young people develop skills to manage anxiety behaviourally. Those behavioural treatments can actually be delivered by a range of people including parents, teachers, friends and online education platforms.
In response to the rise of young people experiencing anxiety and depression, the Community Flower Studio will launch a new ‘Youth Mentoring Program’. Last month, I facilitated an in-person brainstorming session asking our members what topics should be included. We came up with quite a long list (e.g. time management, study skills, career advice, stress-less tips etc., click here for the full list). Some of our members are also keen to be a mentor. As a member of the SECNA (Social Enterprise Council NSW & ACT), CFS is offered a discounted rate to use their state-of-the-art co-working space at South Eveleigh Community Hub (Level 1, 2 Davy Rd). There are 2 soundproof cubicles for video/teleconferences. I just started working there in April on Thursdays. I ran a small group in-person Facilitator Training there last month. If you know any young people who may like to have a casual chat (in-person or via Zoom) with Bibi, just shoot me an email (email@example.com) to organize a suitable time.