Young People Struggling With Their Mental Health Aren’t ‘Deluded’ – They Need Proper Support

Last night, a Dispatches documentary Young, British And Depressed claimed that campaigns to destigmatise mental illness are leading to young people confusing 'normal emotions' with mental health problems. Mental health campaigner Natasha Devon explains why that sends a very dangerous message...

Despatches: Young, British and Depressed

by Natasha Devon |

Have you ever had, or are your currently experiencing, a physical health issue?

Unless you’re a cyborg or living in a hermetically sealed giant hamster ball, the answer is definitely yes. Bodies malfunction in a huge variety of ways – whether it’s by succumbing to the common cold, breaking bones, or developing diabetes. We understand that these illnesses require bespoke, individualised solutions. We understand too that every human has a status of physical fitness and this changes throughout our lifetimes, requiring as it does constant maintenance.

So why, I wondered as I watched last night’s Dispatches: Young, British & Depressed, can’t we see that mental health is exactly the same? The programme, presented by Sanah Ahsan, argued that under 25s with mental health issues are too readily being prescribed antidepressants, when other solutions would be more appropriate. I agree with this: Medication is vital for some, unnecessary for many and actively harmful for a few and yet with the NHS struggling to cope with the demand for talking therapies they are often prescribed in the absence of an alternative.

However, the programme then went on to state that anti-stigma campaigns, such as those created by the magnificent Time to Change, were to blame for this increased demand, making people believe they have a diagnoseable mental illness when in fact they were simply struggling with ‘intense emotions’. A senior NHS psychologist who contributed to the documentary even went so far as to declare that this was ‘undermining our natural resilience’.

There are many reasons why I believe this is utter, dangerous hokum, three of which I’ll explore here.

Firstly, it fails to acknowledge that mental health difficulties exist on a spectrum. Common or garden body image insecurity, coupled with anxiety and lack of access to appropriate coping strategies can, over time, develop into an eating disorder, for example. Furthermore, we know factors such as bullying, abuse, trauma and bereavement increase an individual’s vulnerability to developing mental illness. It just isn’t possible to cleanly separate our ‘emotions’ from our mental health in the way Dispatches would like us to believe.

Secondly, as Dr Marc Bush from Young Minds pointed out, labels can be incredibly helpful. Like 50% of people who have experienced one extended period of depression or anxiety, my mental health issues are ongoing (the other 50% recover and never relapse). Today, I manage Panic Disorder with a combination of daily medication, techniques learned through extensive therapy sessions and helpful lifestyle changes such as running regularly and having a pet. As a result of this, I am able to say confidently that I ‘live alongside’ a mental illness – I no longer ‘suffer’ from anxiety and it does not impede my ability to be happy or successful.

Yet, it’s taken me so long to get here. I didn’t receive a diagnosis of Panic Disorder until I was 31 (despite having my first panic attack aged 10) and that, I believe, marked the stage at which I could meaningfully begin to take control of my life because I finally knew what my opponent was. Before that, I was just feeling in the dark, trying and failing to adult, wondering why everyone else seemed to find life so much easier than me.

The problem, in my opinion, isn’t diagnosis in itself, it’s other people’s attitude towards it. As Grazia’s ‘Where’s Your Head At’ Campaign shows, discrimination within the workplace is still rife. Employers and peers often fail to recognise that a person who is on the recovery pathway has taken the time to understand their brain and make appropriate adjustments to ensure they can function in the world and therefore will most likely make a fantastic employee. Ironically, this makes anti-stigma campaigns all the more vital.

This brings me to my final observation: Last night’s Dispatches predominantly focussed on young people and, in my experience, it is true that there are much greater levels of understanding and fewer barriers to discussion around mental health within this age bracket. This is testament to the hard work of campaigners, charities and teachers. However, there is a massive chasm in levels of stigma amongst age groups – One only needs to take a cursory glance at Twitter and see some of the comments made by older users on the Dispatches hashtag to be assured of this. A typical example:

‘Deluded. Try the wartime generation. Moved away from home facing an existential threat. The 70s generation grew up in a riot strewn mass unemployment Britain (exams were actually hard) this generation don’t know they’re born and are self obsessed snowflakes’.

I wish I could tell you this is an isolated troll, blithering into the digital ether but unfortunately this is pretty typical of the response I get when delivering mental health talks at corporate events attended predominantly by over 35s. And, lest we forget, it is over-35s who are most likely the gateway to young people getting the support they need for their own struggles.

So, by all means let’s endeavour to broaden the range of solutions to mental health challenges we have available – after all, you wouldn’t prescribe chemotherapy for a sniffle and the psychological equivalents of Lemsip are sorely needed. But don’t fall into the trap of believing awareness campaigns are encouraging us into delusions of mental illness. Some progress has been made, but we still have a long, long way to go.

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