Mollycoddled and cosseted or stressed and over-pressured. Energised and engaged or bored and turned off. Young people have so many labels and stereotypes slapped on them it’s a wonder these are not visible on their endless selfies. What is undeniably true is that the evidence suggests that rates of depression, self-harm and anxiety among young people are at unprecedented levels.
Youth unemployment is more than 13%, the cost of higher education is rapidly rising, a drought of affordable housing coupled with low pay is keeping many young people sealed under the parental roof and trapped in what one report called “suspended adulthood”. The ubiquity of the internet and social media, with its dark underbelly of hardcore pornography, body shaming and cyberbullying, is encroaching on their wellbeing, while a relentless focus on academic high-achieving is turning up the pressure in the classroom. Youth, traditionally thought of as the most enviable time of life, can now look like a deeply challenging and sometimes unpleasant time of life.
But is the experience of adolescence – defined as the period after childhood, from puberty to maturity – any tougher now than it was for previous generations? And when does it stop, given that some experts argue that full intellectual maturity is reached at the age of 27.
Among the events planned for World Mental Health Day, an exhibition by a small but successful charity in London aims to unpick some of the issues around the “lived experience of adolescent development”. Open Door has helped thousands of young people with therapy and support with problems including depression, anxiety, self-harm, drug and alcohol misuse, eating disorders, psychosis, sexuality and gender identity issues since it opened in 1976.
The exhibition, Adolescence Then and Now, marks the charity’s 40th anniversary, and director Julia Britton, one of the capital’s leading consultant child and adolescent psychotherapists, says demand for its services is greater than ever. “We are operating with a constant waiting list of around 100, we can’t even meet local demand. Parts of the country have nothing at all for young people with mental illness. The lack of provision is a huge issue for now, and a huge issue being stored up for the future.”
She says many of the issues facing young people have not changed. “I look at myself as a teenager in the 1970s and so many issues were around: teen pregnancies, drug and alcohol misuse, psychotic breakdowns, financial and identity pressures. But there are many differences, too. The context certainly is different. I think there are far more pressures educationally, more sense that it’s all hinged on one exam, and certainly teachers are hugely concerned about the mental distress they are seeing. Then there’s cyberbullying where you can’t switch off and you can’t get away. Pornography, a normal part of development, is now very far removed from Playboy. A lot of young people are disturbed by what they see online.
“The internet is both helpful and not. If young people type in ‘self-harm’, they can either go to a Young Minds website where they will be offered help and support, or to a destructive group which is discussing how to self-harm and hide eating disorders. So it’s good and bad,” she says.
The sense of a struggling generation has undoubtedly taken on new dimensions. Last week a poll by the charity Young Women’s Trust found that “suspended adulthood” was affecting the mental health of one in three 18-to-30-year-olds who felt worried about the future and under financial pressures due to low pay and lack of work or opportunities. More than half of the 4,000 surveyed were having to live at home with their parents.
“Make no mistake,”says Dr Carole Easton, chief executive of the charity, “we’re talking about a generation of young people in crisis. It is not in any of our interests to write off an entire generation.”
Abena is 18. A former mental health service user at Open Door, she interviewed artist Grayson Perry in a video project for the coming exhibition. They discussed the contrasts in their teenage experiences. He told her: “My family was quite screwed up, it was quite a volatile household and quite scary.” In 1976 Perry was 16 and had already been thrown out of his home by his stepmother over his transvestism: “When I was that age you hung out on the village green and got bored with others. I had low impulse control, I was incredibly angry until I went into therapy.”
What most struck Abena, she says, was that, while his cross-dressing was a major taboo and so a pressure point for him as a teenager, “he doesn’t remember having any issues over his body image at all. He doesn’t remember having a conversation about body image. But he remembers trying to keep his dressing-up from his parents and how everybody thought transvestism was very strange and taboo. That identity didn’t exist.
“Now I think that would be far more acceptable and people would be quite relaxed about that. But I feel like there are very real pressures around body image now that he didn’t have. Having social media now, it’s real pressure around how you look, making sure every picture is perfect,” she says.
“So the pressure he had then isn’t what we have now, but we have other ones. And it all depends on where you go in the world. I’m a black woman, but that would be a very different issue if I was living in America, for example. As a young person now I don’t drink very much, but I’m going to university where there is a real culture of drinking heavily and I find that really daunting. I’ll be in a minority, and being in a minority can be very uncomfortable,” says Abena. “I don’t think I’d have gotten through my bad times, to be honest, if I hadn’t been able to access Open Door. I don’t know how I’d have coped on my own. All the worries I had which felt too big to say to teachers or even my family, I was able to say there. It felt like home.”
Leigh Wildman, a therapist and support worker for young people with special needs, is 54. “I often wonder about whether I’d be on computer games if I’d been a teenager now instead of climbing trees, kicking a tin can down the road and making camps as we did then. Then later on there was music, of course, counter-culture music and art which rescued me. I left school at 15, but in those days you could go round the industrial estate and get a job and I did lots of jobs before taking off hitchhiking round Europe when I was 18,” she says.
“My mum was pleased, but I feel young people today are much more fearful. They stay at school longer, at home longer, and the world looks very daunting. They have to knuckle down at school and there’s no space to be light-hearted or to drift a little, to find out who they are, what kind of people they like. I had time for that, and I’m very glad I did,” adds Wildman.
Another teenager, a client at Open Door, is Elena, 17. She says all her friends at school suffer panic attacks and anxiety: “If you drop grades a bit, you feel a failure, you feel the teachers immediately ignore you for the people who are high achievers.
“It’s like you have to be this robot. I think it’s harder now in terms of all the pressures to look a certain way and keep up with everything, and I think it’s harder in terms of trying to speak to your parents or people at school who are not trained because when they were growing up mental health was not something anyone spoke about.”
And she adds: “ I’d cry in the classroom a lot at school, but teachers would just be a bit uncomfortable and you’d not want to open up. I’d just say I was having a bad day. I feel a lot more hope for the future now than I used to. I never used to think there was a future for me.”
1976 Around 93% of homes own a television. 2016 Young people spend more time online than watching TV.
1976: Sex Pistols prompt a media storm by swearing live on Bill Grundy’s TV show.
2016 Kanye West faces a backlash after calling Taylor Swift a bitch in a song lyric.
1976 Around 14% of people go to university. 2016 Around 40% of England’s school-leavers go to university.
1976 9.1% of UK men and 8% of UK females aged under 20 are out of work. 2016 13.6% of UK 16-24-year-olds are unemployed.
Teenagers face real problems on a daily basis during the most awkward growth stages of their lives; between 13 and 19-years-old. During this time, teens are exposed to some overwhelming external and internal struggles. Teens go through, and are expected to cope with hormonal changes, puberty, social and parental forces, work and school pressures, as well as encountering many conditions and problems. Teens feel overwhelmed when faced with unprecedented stresses concerning school and college, and career confusion situations. Those who have absentee parents are exposed to more unfavorable states of life. The issues that teenagers face today vary but these issues can be dealt with easily if parents and other guardians can understand the symptoms of their problems. Parents need to approach their children, who have been suffering from one or more teenage problems, carefully and in a friendly manner to discuss the problem(s). Many teens feel misunderstood. It is vital that their feelings and thoughts are validated and that the validation comes from their parents.
The most common problems that teenagers face today include:
Self-Esteem and Body Image
Drinking and Smoking
Peer-Pressure and Competition
Surprisingly, all of these problems are connected to one another, like a chain reaction. When the teens face self-esteem and body image problems, they can become frustrated, resulting in eating disorders. The teens start feeling stress when they are exposed to peer-pressure and competition at school, or child abuse at home. Many teens take to drinking and smoking in order to relieve the stress. Many may run away from home, play computer games, and start chatting online with strangers. Computer games and online chatting can result in addiction. Many teens feel further stress when they get bullied online. Others may become easy targets of online predators and once treated badly, they turn to more harmful practices. Those who cannot find love at home or support at schools start to build relationships with friends in school or local areas, resulting in unsafe or underage sex, and possible teen pregnancy. Many become addicted to drugs and harm themselves when they cannot get results. Many teens resort to crimes once they feel they cannot get any help or support.
However, the most common problems teenagers face today are described below:
Self-Esteem and Body Image
Teenagers undergo and have to cope with numerous body changes. Some teenagers feel too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short, etc. This feeling leads them to spend time wishing they were not too skinny, too short, their hair was not too curly or vice versa. The problem with this feeling is that it affects their self-image. As a teenage boy or girl's body changes, so does the self. When they do not like something in themselves, they have self-esteem and body image problems. They also perceive others, particularly schoolmates, to view them as they view themselves. They can suffer more from these problems when they have trouble adjusting.
Hormonal changes have huge effects on the general growth and mood of the teens. Puberty changes tempt teenagers to compare themselves with people around them and when they find they do not match their standards, they feel low. They also compare themselves with those seen on TV, in movies, and in the magazines. Most youths' ability to develop positive self-esteem is affected by family life and parental criticism. Teenagers who experience negative comments about their appearances, the way they talk, etc stuff also develop poor self-esteem and body image.
Bullying is one of the worst teenage problems and affects millions of youths. Bullying causes fear in the minds of kids, and makes them nervous going to school each day. The adults do not always witness the bullying in their lives. The teenage children may be subject to heavy bullying as they may not understand how extreme it can get. Any form of bullying is relentless, causing the affected teenagers to live in a state of constant fear. Two of the prime reasons teens are bullied are their appearance and social status. Bullying has caused many serious and life threatening problems for bullied teens. As they get bullied often in school, their academics, and mental health suffer.
Bullying can be cruel when it becomes physical attacks on the victims. Some bullies attack their targets physically while others repeatedly spew verbal insults, affecting the psychology of the affected teens.
The latest edition of bullying is cyberbullying . It can get as worse as it gets in the real life experience of the teens. Cyberbullies use cruel instant messages, text messages, emails online, and voice messages in many cases. Bullying is a very offensive behavior and crime. Bullying leads to more violent behavior in the bullies in their adult years. They eventually get rejected by their peers, lose friendships and become depressed as they age. Parents, teachers, and people in general should educate their teenagers about bullying and tell them to report any act of bullying to them. Media can also educate the teenage children about bullying when some teenagers are bullies.
Depression is one of the worst problems that some teenagers suffer from and it can lead to more problems in the future. Depression may arise from poor self-esteem and body image problems. If that is the reason of depression in a teen, then parents should talk to the teen, listen to their child, comfort him or her, and accept their child for who they are. It is crucial that teens feel validated in their feelings and thoughts because what they are going through is a real part of their lives. Parents and guardians should not judge or criticize their feelings or thoughts. They should tell the teen how important it is to have high self-esteem and be comfortable in their body.
Depression symptoms in teenagers may be exhibited in various ways. Changes in sleep patterns, eating habits, declined interest in normal and healthy activities, dropping grades in school and college, and preferred isolation are all signs of depression. When teenagers exhibit one or all of these symptoms parents should intervene immediately. If teenagers begin talking about their depression, then they should be allowed to express their feelings, and parents should validate their feelings by listening to them without interrupting the conversation.
Drugs and Alcohol
Youths, particularly those who are in their early teens who drink, put themselves at risks for many problems. For example, they face problems with the law, at school, with their parents, and peers. In the USA, drug abuse is a major problem affecting millions of teenagers, along with their parents and families. It is an imperative that parents, schools, media, etc, educate the young children about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and how drugs affect their bodies. If they are taught properly, then they will be able to make an educated choice.
The Internet offers undeniable benefits in developing a teen's ability to grow with modern technology, technical ideas, knowledge and other skills. However, using the internet, particularly the social networking websites, unsafely puts the teenagers at very high risk for many problems. When children spend more than enough or agreeable time online they tend to be cyber addicts. As they spend more time on social networking, gaming, and other websites, particularly adult sites, they suffer from cyber addiction.
Cyber addiction can be just as harmful as addiction to drugs or drinking alcohol. Teenagers who spend unhealthy amounts of time on the Internet or online suffer from a condition recognized as Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). Those who have IAD conditions may experience distress, withdrawal symptoms including obsessive thoughts, tremors, and other mental and physical problems. Cyber addiction impairs the quality of their lives. Parents should talk to their children and agree on a list of rules that clearly say when to use the internet, which sites they should visit and what safety measures they should follow. Teachers can also ensure safe browsing of the web at schools and colleges for teenage students.
Problems that teenagers are faced with today are multifarious but interrelated in many cases. One problem invites another, then to more problems. Parents, teachers and other guardians should be well aware of the problems that today's teenagers are facing and be prepared to eliminate the problems to their best abilities. The sad fact is, even in solid and stable family units, teenagers may face with uncertainly, confusion and wrong directions involving their lives. Those who have witnessed and experienced broken homes, unsafe sex, alcohol, drug abuse, and bullying issues, show themselves differently in the community they live in. Proper parenting is vital, especially in the very formative years of the children, so that they can grow up with the manners and teachings taught by their parents.