Mental health problems – me or we?
Last post, we looked at possible reasons behind a recent big upsurge in children and youth going to the emergency department for mental health issues.
It is hardly likely that many kids separately and individually started swarming to EDs just by chance.
We are often tempted to locate mental health problems in the individual, and we then treat individual cases without considering that each of us is embedded in social environments, and some of those environments may be toxic to mental health.
Jean Twenge, a US psychologist, claims that the widespread advent of smartphones among teenagers has coincided with increases in mental health problems. One of her studies found that teens who spent more time seeing their friends in person, exercising, playing sports, attending religious services, reading or even doing homework were happier than those who spent more time on the internet, playing computer games, on social media, texting, using video chat or watching TV.
Every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness. The differences were considerable: teens who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy as those who spent less than an hour a day.
We also have evidence that exposure to chronic stress leads to increased rates of mental illness. Some kids live in chronically stressful environments which they are powerless to change. Their families or they themselves deal with poverty, debt, unemployment, insecure low-paid work, low education, housing stress, racism and discrimination, and exposure to violence, child abuse and neglect. These all increase stress, and consequently rates of mental illness.
What about social fragmentation and loneliness? Humans are social beings, and there is clear evidence that the more ‘social circles’ we are in, the better our mental and physical health. In fact, our social identity is more significant for physical health and life expectancy than whether we smoke, have high blood pressure, or eat a poor diet.
Kids benefit from face-to-face contact in a variety of social situations where they can find a place of belonging – family and school of course, but also sports clubs, scouts and guides and cadets, dance and drama, youth groups, volunteer groups, and so on. The more the better, not to over-schedule their lives, but to provide opportunities for those vital human connections that we all need for sanity and meaning.
As someone cutely put it: when ‘I’ is replaced with ‘we’ then iLLNESS becomes weLLNESS.
No amount of mental health services – counselling, medications, EDs, and so on – can meet the rising demand (though clearly more services are needed). We must address these social determinants of health to reduce the need for services in the first place.
On the college website there is advice on finding information and support for a range of needs (Current families > Counselling).
- Australia’s policy failure on mental health
- What might explain the unhappiness epidemic?
- The health effect of social contact