Suffering in silence: Why the voices of young people on mental health must be heard


During a week's work experience at CommonSpace, 16-year-old Alisha Malik has been investigating mental health problems experienced by young people and asking what can be done to help them 

IF you are sitting in a room with 30 young students, you will find that no less than three of these students suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. At least two will self-harm, approximately five will suffer from an anxiety condition and six will suffer from depression before they reach adulthood. 

More than half of these students will not seek the help they need.

We take a look at why this is happening, and what could be done to change it.

What is causing mental health problems among young people?

Since 1980, mental health issues have doubled in juxtaposition with overwhelming pressure in schools as the demands of qualifications heighten. Mental health problems at young ages are predominantly associated with pressures originating in the school environment which can emerge from recurring themes such as bullying or vast quantities of workload. 

A survey conducted by National Union of Students (NUS) discovered that 80 per cent of students found that, while studying, ‘stress’ was their most prominent mental health issue, followed by ‘anxiety’ at 55 per cent and a ‘depressed’ feeling at 49 per cent. 

Sixty-five per cent felt their mental distress triggers were ‘course deadlines’, followed by 54 per cent and 52 per cent that found ‘exams (including revision)’ and ‘balancing study and other commitments’ were their cause of distress. Yet, in the survey it was highlighted that 64 per cent of students didn’t ask for ‘formal help’ such as contacting their GP when suffering from any form of mental distress. 

What long-term effects can mental health problems in young people cause?

If not attended to in due time, these issues can progress into other severe problems such as drug misuse and underage drinking. Suicide for youth aged 15-24 is known to be the third largest cause of death in the UK, and ChildLine (UK) recently disclosed that there has been a drastic increase of 116 per cent of children expressing suicidal thoughts in counselling sessions.

This displays that as mental health issues rise, suicide has became a worrying issue. However, it is possible that since the introduction of mental health education in schools, the decrease of stigma has meant that these rates are only increasing as more students are ready to discuss their emotional wellbeing.

Additionally, actual suicide rates have decreased in the past few years as presented by from 14.7 per 100,000 of age group 15-24 year olds in 2011 to 9.7 in 2014. That amounts to a 32 per cent decrease, although fluctuating throughout the years. 

Wendy Kyle, a worker at Healthy Valleys, an organisation focused on reducing health inequalities, tells CommonSpace: “Better training of teachers and support staff is needed – safe talk suicide awareness and self-harm awareness training is essential. 

“Also, learning coping skills and giving pupils the opportunity to practice these should be implemented, e.g. breathing techniques, meditation and mindfulness. Safe spaces need to be created in schools for those pupils who experience panic attacks, stress and anxiety, particularly around break times.”

What support is there for young people?

A report by concluded that over 25 per cent of young people felt that the best prevention that could be done to help young people from feeling they want to hurt themselves was for someone who would listen to them and give advice and support. 

Lynne, a former student who faced anxiety disorder and had clinical depression in her teenage years, stated: “When I was at school nobody spoke about it at school. When I tried to go and get help from many different places they said I was young and they didn’t understand how I could possibly be suffering from mental health conditions. There was a lot of stigma around it. They said, ‘you are young, you don’t have anything to worry about’.”

Lynne, who now works for mental health organisation See Me, said that due to the lack of discussion on such matters she felt alone and deserted.

“Even after I was diagnosed I had people saying to me, ‘you don’t want people talking about it, you don’t want people knowing about it’. There was no education about it and no discussion about it. It made me feel worse, and prevented me from seeking help.

“[I got help] initially from my GP. She referred me to mental health services. I had cognitive behavioural therapy and I was prescribed medication. Once I started to speak about it, I got support from family and close friends; the biggest thing that changed my outlook was cognitive behavioural therapy.

“Children need someone that they can trust. It can make such a difference if someone listens to you and takes what you are saying seriously and doesn’t just dismiss you. Mental health is part of everybody’s life, so it’s important that people get the support that they need. I think it’s such a shame that there is still so much stigma attached to mental health and that young people like myself have been discriminated against because of their age.” 

What is the government response?

Currently, 5.56 per cent of the entire mental health budget is spent on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), amounting to less than 0.5 per cent of the entire NHS Scotland budget. Earlier this year, Nicola Sturgeon announced that an additional £54m will be put towards mental health services, including CAMHS, which will allow better knowledge regarding mental health to teachers, parents and students.

Young Minds’ chief executive Sarah Brennan stated in their blog:  “The truth is that years of underfunding have left the whole system overwhelmed. Many local authorities have repeatedly had their budgets slashed on things like social workers, support programmes for parents, educational psychologists and targeted mental health services in schools. 

“This has put a huge burden on services further up the chain, which simply can’t cope with the demand. The government has pledged an extra £1.4bn towards children’s mental health, but this money must be protected and spent where it’s needed most.” 

Lynne added that, following her experiences, she believes more education in schools is essential: “I think, we need young people to understand mental health. It’s part of everyday life. We need them to be educated and informed about it. Being part of the young people’s programme we have developed resources for schools, for teachers, for parents which are being piloted in schools to help understand about mental health and allow people to have conversations about it in school.

“The curriculum for excellence states we should teach young people about mental health with the constitution we have developed and that is something that can become more prominent in schools.”

There is a 10-year government strategy being introduced hoping to drastically improve mental health services in the future which includes reducing waiting time in receiving help which was previously reported to being up to a 200-day wait. Focus will also be put onto tackling mental health problems before they arise and provide better services to all those seeking it. 

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Picture courtesy of Wayne S. Grazio

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