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The real reason today’s children are so unhappy

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What is wrong with our children today? According to a joint report from The Black Dog Institute and Mission Australia, around one in four teenagers have experienced a “probable mental illness”, which means one in five have had depression or anxiety or both. According to the same report, teenage girls are twice as likely as boys to experience depression or anxiety.

On Monday, Stephen Fry described his shock at learning of a self-harm epidemic among some of the most privileged children in the UK in some of Britain’s top private schools. Self-harm is also on the rise among teenagers in Australia.

The real reason today's children are so unhappy
Mental illness is more prevalent in girls than boys, according to The Black Dog Institute.  

The figures are certainly shocking, but what is driving this wave of unhappiness? Addressing the issue during a recording of Bryony Gordon’s podcast Mad World, Fry said, “We can say, but look, they’ve got everything… they’ve got iPhones, they’ve got this, they’ve got that. Clearly, we know that can’t be enough. There is something missing… How do we address it?”

Having worked for more than 40 years in child psychiatry, Dr Mike Shooter has more insight than most. The former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists spent most of his career in the Welsh Valleys, but has a broad perspective on what may be “missing”.

But is anxiety really as pervasive a problem as recent figures suggest, or are people simply more comfortable talking about it?

“I’m pretty sure it has [increased],” he says. But also adds: “I think we recognise it more than we used to. We’re seeing a lot of kids who’ve got lower levels of anxiety than a formal psychiatric diagnosis.”

Many point to increased use of social media as fuelling unhappiness; Dr Shooter suggests this is part of the problem, but not the only factor. “Social media is wonderful for kids with ghastly anxiety, sitting up in their bedrooms in the loneliness of a night, [messaging] people every hour to see if somebody likes them or not. They have to have their private world, that’s what adolescence is about.”

And if a parent is worried about overuse or negative effects? “Do something,” he urges. “Quite a lot of the kids with horrendous anxiety and self-harm are paralysed. They don’t know whether to say anything or not, and the answer for parents is always to do something: talk about it, learn about it, look at what your kid does. If necessary, take the equipment away, but show you’re doing it because you care.”

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While teenagers must be allowed to take risks in order to develop into healthy adults, setting boundaries is just as important with this age group as it is with toddlers, he argues.

“Adolescents have developed all sorts of cognitive and social abilities and they want to explore the world and who they are as a person,” he says. “But we know as parents there need to be boundaries or they’ll behave in ever more dangerous ways until they’ve found them. And what I think anxious kids who are self-harming as a result of all that social media exposure are saying is ‘Help me. It’s out of my control.’ For heaven’s sake: parent. Don’t be frightened of intruding. If your kid is pale, tired and miserable then they’re asking for your help.”

But social media is not the only issue. In considering the causes of what he calls “a genuine increase in unhappiness levels among children”, Dr Shooter casts his net more widely. “It’s a ferociously competitive society that we live in and we’re always failing kids at something,” he says. “We should be looking at different [educational] models where kids go into academia later in life, where they begin with cooperative play with other kids but they don’t take home this mountain of homework in addition to all the other stuff they’ve had to do; where we don’t test them at every opportunity. It’s very anxiety-provoking.”

On the other hand, aren’t today’s children – at least those from middle-class families – relatively comfortable and secure? After all, they are not living through war, for example, as their great-grandparents did.

“Quite often you find that in circumstances of war or disaster, anxiety and depression levels go down and when peace comes, they go up,” notes Dr Shooter. “I think it’s to do with community spirit, togetherness and purpose – something that’s bigger than them and individual struggle.”

So young people today perhaps lack meaning; a sense of connection and belonging? “Community has broken down,” agrees Dr Shooter. “It’s right across cultures and right across class. You see the same levels of loneliness, unhappiness, anxiety and depression in children in middle-class gated communities [as in economically deprived households]. Kids spend more time talking to each other on the phone and less time together.”

The “rituals of togetherness and family life” are, he says, also melting away. Over one in five families only sit down to eat together once or twice a week. These rituals, Dr Shooter believes, make a difference, not least as an opportunity for families to talk to each other.

Is talking sometimes the problem, though? We have talked more than ever about mental health in recent years, a period that has coincided with an apparent explosion in the incidence of mental health problems. Is this a coincidence, a cause or effect? But Dr Shooter is firm on this point: discussing these issues does not increase their prevalence.

“There used to be a feeling that you mustn’t talk about drugs or sex because if you do you’ll spread it, and sometimes there’s the same feeling about mental health. That’s really not true. We must talk about it,” he says.

Indeed, if there’s any message of hope to take away, it is surely that talking does help. But there’s another message, too, for parents – one that applies no matter what.

“If you’ve got kids you’ve got to spend time with them and do things with them. You need positive time together,” he says. “Regretfully, fewer parents have that. And that, I think, is one of the things that lies behind the rise in anxiety in kids today.”

The Telegraph, London with Fairfax Media

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