“The issues faced by our youth a decade ago and now are similar. What’s different and makes it more complex and possibly worse, is technology, the increased usage of social media, and access to information,” says 13-year veteran MOE school counselor, Ms. Chan.
There has been growing awareness and concern surrounding mental health and our youth especially in light of stats like, 50% of mental illnesses appears before 14 years-old and 18% of youths suffer from depression.
Due to chemical changes in the brain caused by puberty, youths face an increased chance of developing depression and anxiety. Combined with societal, academic pressures, and uncontrollable factors at home, this marks a vulnerable time for them.
To this, Ms. Chan adds, “I don’t see youths having depressive symptoms and feeling anxious as abnormal. What matters is the extent, how it manifests for different individuals, and the ways they manage it.”
The Influence of Technology & Social Media
Youths today have never known a time without the internet. They are well-versed in both its advantages (e.g. easy access to information), and vices (e.g. preoccupation with social media). Registered counselor, Ms. Pamela Koh explains, “Technology can be powerful, providing youths with access to all kinds of information. The negative impact stems from the type of information they access and how they receive it.”
One example is the growing awareness of mental health among teenagers, and an increase in self-diagnosis. Ms. Chan states, “Before some (students) see me, they will have checked the symptoms (e.g. for depression). They might then tell me ‘I have 7 out of 10 of these symptoms’, and pre-label themselves (e.g. ‘I am a depressed case’). As a result, it sometimes plays out like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Social media has also become a major influence, with our youths spending hours online. “Teenagers are very volatile and malleable at this stage of identity formation. Once they respect someone, it has a huge impact on them.” Ms. Chan shared.
She shared about a Korean popstar who took his life in 2017. After sensationalisation on social media (i.e. other stars posted about him, his bandmates posted loving messages/photos, etc.), there was a sudden hype around suicide.
Consequently, Ms. Chan noticed youths engaging in suicide ideation, saying things like “wow he was so loved, I would also commit suicide like him”, even without prior depressive symptoms.
Empowering and Equipping Starts from Home
Although mental health issues tend to surface more during teenage years, childhood is crucial in setting the foundation. “The family unit is the system where every child is formed. Everything is connected – the environment they grow up in becomes the bedrock for how they cope with issues in their youth.
“If parents foster an environment where kids are open to share how they feel, even when expressing difficulties, they will learn that the family is a safe space to experiment and learn.
“If their feelings are not validated, they won’t be empowered to deal with issues and suppress them instead. This leads to in unhealthy coping mechanisms and mental states.” Ms. Chan explains.
Nonetheless, it is never too late. “Although parents may need to work harder to build relationship with their teenagers, it always starts with improving communication,” Ms. Koh says. She suggests 5 ways that parents can better connect with their youths –
1) Put aside the mindset of trying to “fix” them: While it is only normal that parents want to give the best advice to their youth, the ‘quick-fix’ response is not helpful for the conversation to go deeper. If youths feel that their parents just want to fix them/the situation, they will not feel safe to share more and may instead shut down.
2) Learn to listen non-judgmentally: Instead of forming an opinion while they’re talking, listen to what they say. Learn to hold your tongue until you have listened enough. Be mindful of your response – you want your relationship to be a safe space, where they feel like “my parents won’t only judge/fix/correct me, they’re actually listening to me”. Then they will feel safer and be more open to sharing.
3) Position your statements as questions: The teenage developmental stage is a search for their identity. Acceptance is paramount and youths become sensitive to judgement. Rather than direct statements (that might be seen as judgment), rephrase them as suggestions. Take on an attitude of curiosity about their perspective, so they feel accepted and not criticised.
4) Spend time with them on their terms: Take on their interests, do what they’re comfortable with. For example, if your daughter loves shopping, go with her. Continue to keep an attitude of non-judgmental curiosity asking questions (“is this a colour you like?”) instead of being too quick to comment.
5) Remember what it was like when you were teenagers: Have empathy for your teenagers, understand this is a tough phase to go through and they need more encouragement, grace and validation.
Once this safe space and belonging is found at home, the bombardment of external influence, technology and information can be tempered by parental support and guidance. This provides a baseline to discern what is right, how to process and work through their emotions, conflicts and relationships.
The Community Our Youths Need
For a teenager, navigating their changing bodies and today’s digital world can be scary. Sometimes all they need is someone who will be there.
“We often tell our youth to rise up and speak out. But we need to really listen, not just to the positives, but what we may not want to hear.” Ms. Chan aptly expresses.
Ms. Koh adds, “The church can be a powerful resource for young people. Leaders and even adults can build an environment in discipleship, in small group, where people feel safe and accepted for who they are. In turn, youths will be able to reach out to someone and share ‘I feel lonely’ or ‘I feel sad’, knowing they will not be judged.”
Beyond that, there needs to be a mindset shift towards mental health struggles. “It is not failure. Stigma is reinforced because society labels it ‘not normal’, or treats them differently. Instead, view it from a growth perspective, an opportunity and part of growth, part of building resilience.”
Ms. Chan concludes, “As their families and communities, we need to acknowledge what they go through, how it affects them, and how we can support them. We need to embrace them as individuals, without judgment, and show they are safe with us to express and find out who they are. Afterall, isn’t that what Jesus did for each of us?”
If you feel that you or someone you know are struggling with mental health and would like to speak with someone, please reach out to these counseling hotlines at 6336 3434 (Youth Line) or 1800 377 2252 (Touch Line).
Find out more about Ms. Pamela Koh’s work and how to help your loved ones here – “Helping Christians Through Depression”.
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