By Kim Moore, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health

National media have again highlighted the inadequate state of child and adolescent mental health services, and with mental health high on the agenda at the Conservative party conference – our attention has been re-focused on the increasing rates of depression, self harm and suicide currently being experienced by UK teenagers.

The McManus et al (2016) report – (The National Psychiatric Morbidity Survey), highlighted the growing epidemic of young people with mental distress and mental health issues that remain untreated.  According to the latest national statistics more and more young men and women are experiencing psychological distress, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder with latest predictions doming from a 2014 census this trend is likely to continue or underestimate the true proportions of the current problems.

This is not a new story, teenagers have for many years been crying out for help from mental health services, however in a climate of substantial decreases in investment in health, child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) have been significantly impacted by financial and service cuts. In 2011 calls were made to address the urgent mental health needs of teenagers in distress yet it was only in 2015 the Government committed to re-investment in CAMHS with an additional £150 million pounds identified for developing eating disorder treatments.  So what services are available for our ‘stressed and distressed teenagers’?

The answer is very little.  As early as 2004, research emerged from the United States (Beebe et al, 2004) highlighting increasing psychological vulnerabilities of teenage ‘chat room users’ associated with internet use.  Yet here we are a little over a decade later, just realising the depth of these emotional impacts and how psychologically disabling our social media lives are for our teens.  Yes the pressures on young people are constantly changing and very different from our own experiences of youth.  Paton (2010) suggested the combination of the increasing demands of modern teenage life with educational, social pressures coupled with living life in the internet without an ‘off switch’ is fuelling the increase of mental health problems in today’s youth.  Something previous generations like mine experienced less of.

So what can we do to help today’s young people manage their emotional selves?  Certainly greater investment is desperately needed in CAMHS and will help reduce some of the delays young people experience in getting the help they need.  But will this be enough?  Should there also be an equal investment in early interventions such as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT)?  Recent expansions of this program in 2015 to include children and adolescents had been developed and implemented; however critics point out that without guaranteeing funding, implementation of this could be fragmented, enhancing regional inequality in access to services.  So IAPT could be part of the solution to managing the impending emotional tsunami of young adults who experience intense psychological distress, but only if it is equally accessible to everyone across the UK rather than the patchwork of services that it seems to be.

Could we do more?  Educational providers currently endorse programs to develop emotional resilience.  Working with school children of all ages, emotional resilience programs enable children to cope with uncertainty, to be flexible in the face of adversity and have a more successful recovery if traumatised. As a society we could do more to promote such resilience by actively promoting opportunities where we can encourage our younger generations to develop their life skills; including managing risk, and developing strategies that focus and promote strengths and connections to each other.

Young people can and do promote and practice good mental health wellbeing, by caring for themselves. ‘Looking after yourself’ is a message being promoted within youth services.  It might sound easy however simple activities like eating well; staying active and helping others that are all important in being able to look after our own mental wellbeing can be difficult to achieve.  Asking for help is always hard, promoting good mental health should always be the first option, however it seems a growing number of the nation’s teenagers find it difficult to achieve and which can make asking for help that much harder.

So if we want to see any reduction in the psychological distress experienced by today’s youth, continued media attention and public conversations about the mental health of our young people is vital.  Dropping the ball on investing in their futures will potentially accelerate the rates of self harm, depression, isolation and suicide in young people. So while it is critical that the commitment by the Government to re-invest in CAMHS is realised, it is equally important that we all play our part and that every opportunity to promote good emotional mental health and wellbeing is available to young people now and in the future.

If you want to know more about mental wellbeing, Birmingham City University’s Faculty of Health, Education and Life Sciences are running their own World Mental Health Day event. Drop in and see what mental first aid and resilience strategies you can use or offer to others on the 10th of October, 2016 in Seacole Building, Edgbaston Campus. For more information and to book please visit the Eventbrite page.

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Kim Moore

Kim Moore

Lecturer in Mental Health, Birmingham City University’s Faculty of Health