The young and the stressed out...
|"When you see one in five 11-to-14-year-olds saying stress is a major problem, that's a red flag for the community."|
Young Life Australia's Philip Jenkinson investigates the heightened impact that stress and anxiety is having on today’s teenagers.
Mental health issues for adolescents are on the rise, and this is one of the key findings of a new report into young people by Mission Australia that was released in November 2010.
The annual survey of 50,000 11-to-25-year-olds revealed that body image was still the number one concern for teenagers and young adults, which is in itself predominantly a mental health issue, but the biggest surprise was a spike in adolescents around anxiety.
It seems that for a variety of reasons, young people are not coping well with stress. Personal concerns ranked out of 15 categories revealed that for young teens, “coping with stress” was the most stated issue, with 27 per cent reporting a significant negative impact. In 2009, the figure was 19 per cent.
Mission Australia spokeswoman Anne Hampshire observed that "they are juggling a lot more than past generations in terms of extra activities, but beyond that there's a heightened sense of expectation about their future from family, friends, school and themselves. It's a bit of a hothouse and getting worse. When you see one in five 11-to-14-year-olds saying stress is a major problem, as the survey finds, that's a bit of a red flag for the community."
'A willing ear to listen and not judge'
Speaking in mid November 2010 on Adam Spencer’s breakfast radio program on the ABC, noted adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg lamented the lack of resilience and coping mechanisms that he is encountering in the young people he is seeing through his practice and coming across through research studies.
|“If we can teach kids optimistic thinking between 10 and 13, the rate of serious anxiety issue disorders would halve.” |
Resilience is the capacity to face, overcome, and be transformed positively by adversity.
Dr Carr-Gregg subscribes to the widely held view that acknowledging a bad situation, learning from it, and then moving forwards armed with a positive yet realistic outlook as a result, is excellent for the maturing process of adolescents.
However, he pinpoints the lack of good role models for young people and the rise of ‘helicopter parenting’ as two factors among many that are impacting on their capacity to cope.
“What worries me is the prevalence of mental health issues in young people,” he said in the ABC interview.
“Today, one in four young people will have a diagnosable mental illness prior to age 18, according to Beyond Blue research in early 2010. And two recent major studies, one in the UK and one in the United States, both indicate a measurable decline in a teenager’s ability to deal with stress, so this trend is global.”
Social and emotional competencies need to be addressed, said Dr Gregg-Carr, and he advocates teaching decision-making, anger management and self-esteem in late primary and early secondary school.
“If we can teach kids optimistic thinking between 10 and 13 then I believe that the rate of serious anxiety issue disorders would halve,” he said in the interview.
“I think it is important to tell young people that ‘we love you, we care for you, and we want you to be safe’… it’s a noble cause, and society really has to address this.”
Glyn Henman, the CEO of youth mentoring charity, Young Life Australia, agrees.
“What our people working with high school aged kids are seeing all the time is a real need for positive role modelling, a bit of respect, and just a willing ear to listen and not judge.”
Young people seek acceptance, understanding and a sense of belonging, and in so many cases they feel alienated instead, observes Henman.
“By their parents – a significant percentage of whom live in separate households, as well as their fellow students, the community at large, sensationalised media coverage, over-zealous shopping mall security guards, and on it goes.
“Making matters worse is that many of today’s media role models and reality TV stars are either angry and confused, habitual druggies, infatuated with fame, money-driven, porn-obsessed, violent, or all of the above.
“And then there is the pressure heaped on young people to get good grades, to be popular, and possess all the trappings of success at a younger and younger age,” maintains Henman. “It’s a totally unrealistic and unachievable spiral for many teenagers, so no wonder an increasing number of them are just not coping.”
A realistic set of values and a positive outlook on life
Stress can come from many different sources in the lives of a teenager, including school, a part time job, family, friends, and even extracurricular activities, like sport, music or the performing arts. Ideally, teens should be engaged in school and self motivated, yet there are many aspects of the schooling experience that can cause stress for teens.
|"Far too many teenagers are falling apart emotionally due to the weight of expectations and a misguided perception of potential failure."|
Instead of focusing on learning, teenagers often find themselves under pressure with regard to grades, test scores, homework, and then the university/TAFE/college application process. Teenagers are rewarded for their performance in regards to school, and this external motivation places significant stress on them.
This fact is borne out by one of the most comprehensive studies of adolescent wellbeing in recent times, which was conducted in Western Australia in late 2010. It highlights alarming levels of stress and fear among the State's young people, with 35 per cent of almost 1,000 children (aged from 7 to 18) questioned saying they had too much stress in their lives.
Commissioner for Children and Young People in WA, Michelle Scott, who commissioned the research, said it was not surprising that issues such as family conflict and alcohol misuse were traumatic for young people and impacted their lives seriously, adding to the stress overload many are experiencing daily.
Other key findings included: 60 per cent had been recently bullied in some way, 44 per cent had participated in bullying others, 42 per cent felt scared in public places, 19 per cent did not feel safe at home, and 38 per cent did not have anyone to talk to and thus preferred to keep problems to themselves.
It’s a situation that Young Life’s Glyn Henman, himself a former youth worker, knows only too well.
“Our youth workers come across far too many teenagers falling apart emotionally because of the weight of expectations from their family, a misguided perception of potential failure and embarrassment, the frequent loneliness that they experience, as well as related issues like peer pressure and bullying,” Glyn said.
“Unfortunately, many have turned to drugs, booze or petty crime to let off steam by the time we meet them,” says Henman. “Thankfully, quite a few then come to realise they are valued, they really can push the boundaries and have an awesome time in a safe way, and with a bit of encouragement, develop a realistic set of values, a positive outlook on life, and fulfil their God given potential. I just wish we could reach out and help more young people realise that.”
When to seek help for a teenager in distress
When they are feeling overwhelmed or very stressed out
Encountering problems at school and/or refusal to attend school
Their behaviour indicates obvious low self-esteem
Increased anger and loss of self-control
Loss of interest in their usual activities
Feelings of sadness and hopelessness
Increased negative thinking or negative behaviour
They have recently faced a traumatic experience
They develop sleep disorders
Sudden and then sustained excessive worrying
If you discover they are self-mutilating or self-harming in other ways
When they demonstrate purposeful self-destructive behaviour
This list compiled by Dr Julie Portnoy, LCSW, an adolescent-psychologist based in the USA.
Where to get help quickly
Kids Help Line
Freecall: 1800 551 800
Ph: 131 114
Fully accredited face to face counselling with a Christian backbone, for adolescents and couples, covering domestic violence, depression, divorce, and sexual abuse.
A directory of services for mental health crisis situations with links to each State.
Emergency and after hours contacts - Sydney
Links to dozens of emergency contact numbers for services all around Sydney.
Download Emergency & After Hours Contacts PDF
Australian organisation provides information about depression to consumers, carers and health professionals.
Beyond Blue Youth
Designed to help youth (teenagers) find their way back from depression and anxiety.
This list compiled by www.younglife.org.au – go to ‘Contact Us’ and then hit the ‘Useful Links’ button for more.
Source: Mission Australia November 2010, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg; The West Australian 9 October 2010; Dr Julie Portnoy; Glyn Henman, Young Life Australia.
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