AT a recent National Policy Forum seminar, Senator Joan Freeman spoke about the alarming fact that Irish teenagers (aged 11-13) are the second highest group in Europe to present with emotional distress.
Mention was made of ‘talking therapies’ as a resource for these troubled young people.
The term ‘talking therapies’ fails to capture the depth and breadth of counselling, psychotherapeutic and relationship mentoring practices.
When you consider that only 7% of communication is verbal and the other 93% non-verbal, then the poverty of the ‘talking therapies’ description becomes very clear.
The psychological interventions mentioned are essentially about creating a depth of relationship with a young (or older) person, so that a profound unconditionally loving and non-judgemental relationship is present, and alongside these fundamental qualities, the expressed recognition of how the young (or older) person has creatively and heroically survived the threats to his or her wellbeing to date.
The source of these threats can be within any of the holding worlds young people inhabit — family, school, community, sports clubs and peer groups.
It continues, too, to be unfortunate that the term mental health is used in relationship to people’s distress.
The term is so closely tied to the non-evidence-based facts of ‘mental illness’ and, unfortunately, its association still gives rise to that fear of the stigma of being labelled ‘mentally ill’.
Employing the more accurate term of ‘emotional wellbeing’ certainly eliminates this ‘stigma’ fear and makes it more likely that young people will be more open to speaking about their troubled and troubling worlds.
Furthermore, peer influence is a major factor in teenagers’ worlds and to be seen by peers to be attending a school-based counselling or psychotherapeutic service is likely to be daunting for the young person requiring help.
Certainly, young people would be best served by having the availability of non-school-located counsellors and psychotherapists.
In 2013, the Royal College of Surgeons released research-based figures of one in three children experiencing deep emotional distress by age 13, and, by age 24, this figure increases to one in two, further reinforces the need for Government services to be galvanised to respond affectively and effectively to young people’s emotional distress.
The two questions that arise in consideration of the foregoing are:
1. How is it that young people who are pressurised are not revealing their inner conflicts to the significant adults in their lives — parents, grandparents, teachers, uncles, aunts?
2. How is that the significant adults in their lives are not identifying the young person’s suffering and discretely and kindly expressing love and concern?
As regards the first question, it is likely that trust is a big issue for young people in revealing their torments to adults, as the source of their fear or depression is, in most cases, in the relationship with key adults in their lives.
In relation to the second question, if it is true that such a high percentage of young people are silently suffering, be assured that the figure is just as high for adults.
The reality is that only when adults have found the psycho-social safety with another adult — friend or professional — are they going to be in a conscious place to identify the distress in their young charges.
Whilst there is an urgency to create confidential intervention services for young people, it is even more crucial that such services are available for adults, most especially for those adults who regularly interact with young people.
Continual personal reflection is an essential task for all adults and especially those who have leadership and managerial roles — parents, teachers, child-minders, sports coaches, An Garda, politicians and clergy.
The future of society always lies with adults — not with young people. In the situation where adults have had the opportunities to examine their lives and are living their lives, children and teenagers thrive.
The converse is also true — where adults have not had the good fortune to examine their lives and are largely living unlived lives — young people in their charge survive and often are hungry and thirsty for love and belief in them.
Dr Tony Humphreys is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, author and public speaker. He is the co-founder of the Irish Association of Relationship Mentors (IARM). His book Understanding Teenagers is pertinent to this article.