Perceptions of Mental Health

During our brainstorming sessions, young people’s perceptions of mental health was framed negatively – seen as something to worry about if you become unwell, but not as something that would require positive, daily support in the same way as physical health.

“At school we just learn a bit about what different mental illnesses are there. We don’t ever really talk about how to be healthy or dealing with your emotions, stuff like that.”

This tended not to be the case amongst young people suffering from a diagnosed mental health problem themselves, or providing official care for someone else. They demonstrated a high level of knowledge about (and interest in) the symptoms and definitions of various mental illnesses, medications and other treatments, and politically correct terms.

However, sometimes with prompting, sometimes through self direction, all the young people we worked with proved able to discuss mental health with great maturity and in wider terms, talking of emotional wellbeing, difficulties and literacy. Many demonstrated an intuitive ability to look after and manage their own mental health, without thinking about it in particularly conscious manner or in these terms. Techniques for coping with emotional difficulty were discussed and all were aware of the importance of expressing emotions and sharing problems and fears. From this discussion, an array of practical steps emerged.

Who Young People Trust for Advice

This varies on an individual basis and parents were mainly discussed. Some claimed to feel comfortable speaking to their parents about any difficulties they faced. This was not dependent on the young person having a positive, supportive relationship with their parents; many who claimed to have otherwise mainly positive and supportive relationships with their parents felt unable to discuss their own mental health issues with them for a variety of reasons. Often cited was a fear of disappointing or worrying parents unduly, and of not wanting to cause them to feel a sense of guilt or parental failure. Some felt that it was simply better to discuss such matters with friends, as they would be better placed to understand and empathise with their problems, and less likely to want to take some form of control of the situation. However, despite the feeling that peers often made for good, sympathetic listeners, there was an awareness that they may not always be best placed to provide sound, experienced advice.

Grandparents and older siblings were also mentioned by some as reliable sources of support and advice. Teachers and other such official authority figures were not really mentioned, GPs being the exception. Again, opinion was mixed; whilst some relied on their GP as a key (if sporadic rather than sustained) source of advice and had had positive experiences, others found the idea of visiting a doctor intimidating. A few young people who had seen a doctor for advice had felt patronised and that their concerns were not taken seriously enough. In comparision to physical health, there was less confidence in the ability of a GP to provide effective mental health care. Some young people also mentioned seeking advice through digital assets, including forums and NHS websites, as a less intimidating alternative to medical support.

The idea of self help where possible was viewed favourably. Some young people suggested that the reactions of others to disclosed problems can
sometimes make them seem worse than they had done previously, and that the feeling that you are being helped can in itself trigger negative emotions and reactions.

The young people who seemed the most self-confident and capable of managing difficult emotional situations were those who had a variety of people to whom they could go for advice and support; some of these would be adults and, specifically, a parental figure. A parental figure doesn’t necessarily have to be a parent specifically, and indeed is beneficial to young people to have an adult that they trust outside of family circle and all the emotional barriers this can entail.

Perceived attitudes of adults to young people’s difficulties

Some young people we spoke to felt misunderstood and sometimes even patronised by medical professionals and other adult figures of authority from whom they receive advice and support. This does not necessarily mean that they didn’t appreciate and take on board this advice, but can clearly have a negative impact on their response to offered support. Some young people had been upset by careless remarks made by adults that made light of their problems, along the lines of “you need to pull yourself together” or “its not that bad, other people are worse off.” Such negative associations made some reluctant to ask for help from more official sources, and to prefer instead to discuss their problems with peers.

Some young people had, however, very positive experiences in this regard. Some had strong bonds with one parent in particular or a favoured teacher or youth group leader. Grandparents were viewed by some, despite the generation gap, as better than parents in being able to empathises and really take time to listen.Supporting Others Emotionally

Finding support

Greig and all the young carers we spoke to found the Young Carer support groups extremely important to their well being, in particular:

  • Able to contact a careworker at all times via phone, text or email and receive a quick response.
  • The onus of taking the step to ask for help is removed, as the support workers will call or text to check
up at intervals
  • Encouraged to attend meet ups with other young carers for vital peer support. Importantly, this support is within a controlled environment, managed by care workers.
  • Mixture of workers: some just a bit older and trained (who become older brother/sister figures) and the ‘mother figure’ that is the lead care worker.

Supporting others

Most young people we spoke to – who may not be experiencing mental health problems of their own – are acting in some way or another as a means of support for those who are, often without fully realising that this is what they are doing. Many feel at a loss at what best to do and say in order to help, and few seek any kind of formal advice in this regard. Issues of trust may mean that these young people feel obliged to keep friend’s problems secret, despite this perhaps not be in their best interest.

“I like helping my little sister out, I want to look after her … It’s always good to help other people. But yeah, sometimes it’s really difficult to know what to say or what to do when someone comes to you.”

Providing emotional support to others can be detrimental to the young person’s own mental health if they take on too much of the emotional burden and don’t receive support for doing so. Even when doing so in an official capacity – one young man had acted as a designated ‘mentor’ to younger pupils within school – having the responsibility of caring for others can be emotionally draining and upsetting. As one young person concisely put it:

“You are never prepared enough for when something really bad happens.”

‘Helper Theory’

In contrast to the previous point, however, for those receiving a lot of support for in particular, being able to help others in return seems important for their own wellbeing. It creates a sense of balance, helps prevent the young person from becoming a passive ‘victim’ and allows them to actualise (and better understand through sharing) some of the advise they have received themselves. The benefits of helping is not, however, restricted to those young people living with recognised mental health difficulties, and was seen by the young people to have a positive effect on wellbeing.

Emotional Literacy

Ideas on emotional literacy were discussed in various guises during the engagement sessions. Suggestions were made for specialist teachers to give lessons at schools and colleges in how to deal effectively with emotions and care for and manage your mental health. The possibility of parents and other family members also attending was raised. It was generally agreed that the effective expression of emotions and sharing of problems in a constructive manner was key to long term mental wellbeing. Creativity was mentioned as a means of creating a positive emotional outlet. Education in this way, and also about the day to day realities of living with mental illness, was discussed as a means to fight stigma.
The concept of greater openness and honesty within close social networks was seen as important:

“It’s all about being honest. Being honest with yourself about how you feel, as well as being honest with other people.”

For some, it was only through hearing a confession from a friend that they were able to find the courage or push they need in order to voice their own difficulties. There was an awareness that all kinds of emotional barriers and a sense of stigma prevented this from often being the case. The encouragement of self realisation and the building of self confidence and esteem was also seen as vital by many of the young people. It was felt that schools, families and beyond should encourage a sense of individual self and celebrate achievements and individual strengths in everyone, irrespective of academic or sporting prowess. One young person even quoted Einstein in getting this point across:

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life believing that it is stupid”.

The tendency towards self depreciation was also discussed as negative
in regards to self esteem and well being; this was even seen as culturally indemic:

“Its just part of British society, we’re all really self-depreciating.”

The importance of the ‘third space’

Having a ‘third social space’, a chosen space of shared interest, with friends and peers other than those from the ‘first space’ that is home and the ‘second space’ of school or college, is important for wellbeing. The third social space helps a young person to define who they are and who they wish to be, and to meet other people who have also chosen that particular space for the same purposes.

“We should be taught about how to deal with our emotions at school. You don’t get taught this stuff but you could be. You just get left to figure it out on your own. We should have emotional experts or psychologist teaching lessons.”