Our Children are Suffering

Dr Helen Noble, Senior Lecturer, School of Nursing and Midwifery and Mr Ian Walsh, Senior Lecturer, School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, Queen’s University Belfast

We live and work in a busy, often demanding world and face a number of challenges with potential to increase stress and impact our wellbeing. Among these challenges are social media, which particularly influences our children and their mental health. Negative impacts of social media platforms include depression and anxiety, poor sleep, displeasure with body image, cyberbullying and a belief in a need to change life to fit in with what is viewed on screen. Negativity often arises due to unrealistic representations in social media posts, causing children and adolescents to feel inadequate, often on a daily basis. Inadequacy and low self-esteem are examples of very problematic issues for our children today. This becomes harmful to their mental health. Other challenges faced by children include drug and alcohol abuse, especially within the family, violence, abuse and maltreatment, materialism, poverty, heavy educational demands and eating disorders. There are of course, many others.

When 1000 children were recently asked the simple question: what do you think is the biggest issue for young people today, the top answer was mental health. https://nfpsynergy.net/blog/are-kids-really-alright-biggest-challenges-facing-young-people-today-0. This unfortunate response draws attention to the many life stressors felt by children and adolescents throughout the UK, and as a society we should be very concerned. There is an urgent need to address this huge dilemma as the diagnosis of depression and anxiety in children continues to increase year on year. Over the last decade, clinical depression and anxiety among adolescents has escalated. In addition, increasing numbers of children are committing acts of self-harm; including cutting and burning themselves. Girls tend to do this most often with recorded rates of depression about twice that of boys. The reason why is not known but it may be linked to puberty and societal pressures about appearance. One in six girls has suffered a major bout of depression. Another recent analysis estimated that more than 36 percent of girls in the US have been depressed by the time they reach 17 years of age – 36%! One in every three girls you meet! In relation to males, suicide is still the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in young people between the ages of five and 24. 90% of people who commit suicide had a mental health problem https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Teen-Suicide-010.aspx?WebsiteKey=a2785385-0ccf-4047-b76a-64b4094ae07f

So what can we do? Many schools have started to introduce mindfulness into the curriculum. Mindfulness is the ability to remain present without focusing on the past or future. It is a well-known technique which can improve wellbeing and leads to measurable changes in the brain that reduce feelings of stress. It’s evidence base continues to grow. Mindfulness techniques which focus on compassion can help to develop compassion towards oneself and to others. They are likely to help adolescents facing difficult situations both at school, at home and in general daily living, although it can be difficult to engage unhappy and uncooperative teenagers. If we can increase self-compassion at an early age we can start to ease personal distress and anxiety and help children accept their limitations. Mindful compassion-based approaches cultivate compassion towards self and others, help nurture consideration for people facing difficulties, and ease suffering. Self-compassion helps alleviate difficult personal social experiences, such as living with an alcoholic or drug-dependent parent. Self-compassion greatly benefits mental health, improves interpersonal relationships and is a significant predictor of well-being and resilience. Self-compassion mindfulness training can impact outcomes influencing the ability to live a happier life, reducing depression and anxiety and increasing self-efficacy and the ability to be mindful and grateful for what we have. This is likely to improve interpersonal experience and interaction. This is promising for making society happier, to everyone’s benefit.

We have a crisis that is ongoing and increasing. Many of our children are suffering, sad and depressed. We need to act now and mindfulness is a way forward. Its impact is likely to be far reaching if implemented systematically and rigorously into schools and other educational institutions. One such programme is the ‘Minding Your Health in Eduction (MYHE) Programme delivered by Mindfulness UK https://mindfulnessuk.com/in-education This programme delivers long-term and sustainable teaching of mindfulness in organisations for teachers, support staff and pupils. We need to embrace such programmes or our children will continue to suffer and move into adulthood with enduring, unresolved mental health issues.

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