Mental Health in Young People – are we really doing enough?

Jenna Moriarty courtesy of Jill McDonald

When you look at this photograph what do you see? Are your eyes drawn to the big, beautiful smile on her face that captures the attention of the camera? Do you see a family snap recording a precious moment in time? A moment that may resurface years later. A memory cropping up on Facebook to celebrate her 18th. A picture she may laugh about with her future partner or sharing it with her kids, who could never believe their mum looked as young as this. This is Jenna and these scenarios will never happen. You see, two months after this photo was taken Jenna took her own life. She was thirteen.

The Samaritans reported that between the years 2015 and 2017, suicide claimed the lives of 549 young people aged between 15 and 35, right here in Scotland. The impact of suicide reaches much further than the immediate family and friends. On average, it is estimated that each young person we lose this way affects 135 people. In Scotland alone, that is 74,115 people who are coping with the loss of a loved one from preventable death and while these numbers may make you sit up in horror, they are most likely to be much higher as many agencies do not document this in under 15s.

As unfathomable as it may seem, it is a stark reality that is facing young people in Scotland today. Where death is preferable to continuing in our world. A world where children as young as four are in therapy, a mental health service that is on its knees and we appear too busy keeping up with the Jones’ (or the Kardashians) to recognise the iceberg looming in the distance.

Anxiety and Low Moods

Gillian Griffiths, counsellor and author of Goodbye Baby, explains that most of the young people she meets have issues around anxiety and low mood. “I strongly believe that every young person should have easy access to a counsellor within the school – therefore every school should have a counselling service and it should not be limited to providing a brief therapy, often only six sessions,” Gillian told me when I asked what improvements can be made. “This allows for early intervention, so young people can get the support they need as soon as they start experiencing difficulties rather than having to wait until they reach crisis point.”

Gillian also works as a counsellor with The Jenna Moriarty Foundation (TJMF) which was set up in memory of Jenna. TJMF aims to provide young people aged between four and twenty-five access to fully funded counselling services as referral times through the NHS and CAHMs can take up to a year.

For Jill McDonald, Jenna’s big sister, setting up the foundation has been a cathartic experience and helped her cope with the loss of one of the most important people in her life.

“I get a lot of comfort from being able to help other people. It has actually been good for me to realise that there is a lot of people out there around that age because it’s kind of like we were alone at the time. But to be able to help them rather than see them suffering and getting to the extent that Jenna got to.” Jill shared.

Jill, Jenna and Grant
courtesy of Jill McDonald

Raising over £60,000 for mental health charities in the wake of Jenna’s death, Jill and family quickly realised that not much of the money they were raising was making its way up to Scotland. After much deliberation, Jill and her brother, Grant, set up TJMF which now has been awarded non-profit charity status.

“We do have a wide range of counsellors who do all different sorts of things. We have therapists who deal with younger children. If people come to us, then we will absolutely look to support them” said Jill when asked what they can offer.

Along with charity organisations aiming to support young people and take some of the burdens off overstretched mental health services, a large proportion of the demands are making their way into the education system.

Social Media and Mental Health

Charlene, a pupil support worker, shared her insight into some of the concerns affecting mental health in young people today, with the main ones being social media.

“Social media captures a plethora of issues, pressure around body image and how young people feel they should look and act.” Continuing Charlene said, “I work in a secondary school and 90% of the young people I support present with anxiety-related symptoms, which impacts on learning and attendance.”

When asked what the biggest issues are for addressing the needs of mental health support in young people, Charlene explained “I think we are slowly chipping away at the stigma around mental health, but there is still a lot to be done and, sadly, funding is not there to address this. Waiting times for CAMHS and assessment is too long, and the NHS is stretched to capacity.”

Charlene continued “Early intervention is key. Talking about mental well-being and identification of feelings from a young age (pre-school) and developing positive robust coping strategies to manage emotions, build confidence and resilience”.

Resilience in Children

Psychologists and mental health professionals raise issues around childhood resilience and in a time where children are rewarded with participation medals and there are no more ‘winners’ in sports days, it poses the question: is not allowing children the chance to develop these basic coping strategies for managing disappointment doing more harm than good?

Social Psychologist, Simon Sinek has spent time researching millennials in the workplace and why they are perceived to be an unhappy generation.

“I can break it into four pieces. One is parenting, another is technology, the third is impatience and the fourth is the environment.” Simon informed the audience in an episode of Inside Quest,“Too many of them grew up subject to, not my words, ‘failed parenting strategies’, where, for example, they were told they were special all the time and they were told they could have anything they want in life, just because they want it. You take this group of people and they get a job and are thrust into the real world and, in an instant, they find out they are not special, their mums can’t get them a promotion, that you get nothing for coming in last and you can’t just have it because you want it. In an instant, their entire self-esteem image is shattered and so you have an entire generation that is growing up with lower self-esteem than previous generations.”

Can it be that these areas that have caused such concerns in the millennial generation be filtering down to the next one? Simon also discussed how social media compounds the problem that is gripping young people today.

“We know that engagement in social media and our [mobile] phones releases a chemical called dopamine, that’s why when you get a text it feels good.” He also explained the same goes with likes and shares on social media and highlights “this is the exact same chemical we get when we smoke, when we drink and when we gamble. In other words, it’s highly, highly addictive. You have an entire generation that has access to an addictive, numbing chemical called dopamine through social media and [mobile] phones as they are going through the high stress of adolescence.”

Simon is not the only one who believes the use of social media contributes to young people’s mental health. In a recent anonymous survey that was carried out through Survey Monkey, more than half of the 42 participants surveyed believe that social media is a main contributor to poor mental health in young people. However, social media is not the only contributor addressed, with many blaming a lack of funding as the secondary contributor.

Overstretched Resources

It is no secret that resources for mental health appear to be overstretched and under-funded. The Mental Health Foundation have launched their campaign to put the “emotional wellbeing of children at the heart of children’s school experience.” As part of their campaign, they would like to see further training for teachers in identifying children and young people who have mental health problems. This comes after a recent survey in trainee teachers where 60% said they were not comfortable at recognising mental health needs in students and 73% who believed that mental health is given insufficient priority in teacher training.

As it stands, teachers are overburdened with their existing workload and The Mental Health Foundation believe that further training should be delivered to teachers but recognise that there need to be reductions in their existing workload in other areas. They are also are campaigning for independent, trained counsellors in every school by 2020. They identified that a pro bono economics estimate suggested that for every £1 invested in primary school counselling there could be service result benefits in the long-term of £6.20.

Improvements on the Way

First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, recently discussed the Programme for Government that is set out to ‘tackle’ some ‘bold and ambitious plans’ for some of the ‘big challenges of our time’. Mental health in young people are identified as some of these challenges in her ‘Delivering for Today, investing for tomorrow: the Governments programme for Scotland 2018-2019’ Nicola states that: “Mental health is just as important as physical health and we recognise that, right now, support for our children and young people, in particular, is not good enough.”

With this in mind, the Scottish Government has pledged that they will be investing in additional school nursing and counselling services, creating around 350 counsellors in school education and ensuring all secondary school have counselling services. 250 additional school nurses are to be recruited to help respond to ‘mild and moderate mental health difficulties by 2022.’ Additional teacher training in mental health will be rolled out by 2020 and an additional 80 counsellors will be made available in further and higher education. The government has acknowledged and identified that early intervention is key to addressing the challenges that face young people and their mental health in Scotland.

This will be welcome news to eighteen-year-old Amy Duffy who recently left school. Sharing her experiences of the overburdened, overstretched resources in the school system, Amy recalls witnessing the pressures on both the teachers and the students.

“There would be kids lined up outside the guidance unit, crying, full on sobbing or having a panic attack and they were told they didn’t have an appointment and they’d have to come back, and I could never understand that. Someone standing there crying and you’re telling them ‘you don’t have an appointment” Amy recognises that the teachers were overworked and there were not enough staff to deal with the situation but believes “there was no support of them, no support for us so I think there just needs to be so much more support for them because there was nothing.”

Shortage of Counsellors

With future suggested improvements by the Scottish Government, there is hope that changes are coming, however, counsellor, Gillian Griffiths, identifies a practical concern to this proposed solution. “My only concern is that there are not enough counsellors in Scotland qualified and experienced in working with young people, so the government will also have to look at that training provision.”

Until these changes are implemented, young people are still at the mercy of excessive wait times or the reliance on charities and existing support in the education system to address their emotional and mental health needs.

“I’d like to see us in schools and doctors’ surgeries, getting referrals that way. With putting people through counselling without the long wait list. Without putting the pressure on them asking when they are going to get help.” Jill McDonald, from The Jenna Moriarty Foundation, said.

Jenna Moriarty
courtesy of Jill McDonald

This is Jenna. This is her legacy.

Further information on how to donate, organise an event or referrals can be found HERE.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or low moods, the Samaritans offer a free 24/7 telephone service on 116 123.

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