This week is the 62nd annual Mental Health Week (May 6 – 12) organized by the Canadian Mental Health Association. This year’s focus is on youth. One of the goals of mental health professionals is to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness. In my opinion, I think today’s youth have a greater understanding and awareness of mental health issues than most adults did at their age. In fact, I think young people are doing a much better job at challenging the stigma around mental health than most adults.
A few years ago, I worked with a 12-year-old boy who actually told his parents that he wanted to see a counsellor. It was the first time that ever happened to me. Most children tell me their parents “made them come.” This case was different.
“So, what made you ask your parents that you wanted to see a counsellor?” I asked.
“Me and my friends were playing in the school yard at recess, and then I asked them what they do whenever they have problems. They said, ‘I just go see a counsellor.’ So, when I went home I told my mom that’s what I wanted to do.”
I just sat there with eyes wide open. I couldn’t believe what I just heard. “You and your friends were talking about counselling? In the schoolyard?” I asked incredulously.
“And you and your friends are 12?”
“Yeah. There a couple kids who are 11, but we’re all in Grade 5 or 6.”
“Wow,” I said in a slow, heavy voice. “That is really, really cool.”
Youth are challenging the stigma of mental health
Seriously. Can you remember talking about counselling when you were in grade 5 or 6? I don’t think I even heard the word “counsellor” until I was in high school. I think this speaks to how the conversations – the discourse of mental health – is slowly changing. We may think it’s not, but that’s because we’re only paying attention to the conversations adults are having (or not having). In offices, boardrooms, job sites, in those places, mental illness is still taboo and misunderstood. In the “grown-up world,” the de-stigmatization surrounding mental illness is happening slowly. In the young person’s world, though, it’s happening much more quickly.
With the horrific incidences of school shootings, the tragic consequences of cyber-bullying, we often forget that our youth are much closer to the consequences of mental illness than most adults are. They talk about it at school, they Tweet with experts, and they’ve become more knowledgeable about the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions than many adults I know. In the end, it’s our young people who are shaping the dialogue of mental illness for the next decade.
With that in mind, here are some things adults can do to support youth mental health, and to help in the de-stigmatization of mental illness.
1. Remind yourself that there are many, many good youth whose deeds are leading to good mental health. A good friend of mine, Derrick Shirley, is currently riding his bicycle across Canada to raise awareness of youth who are making “Wow!” In fact, that’s the name of his campaign: “The Making ‘Wow’ Bike Tour.” Over the last several months, Derrick has been collecting stories of youth across the country who are making a difference in their communities. Their actions are fostering good mental health in others, and challenging negative stereotypes we may have about youth.
2. Be the role model you want your child to be. If you want your children to be non-judgemental towards those with a mental illness, you need to be non-judgemental as well. Kids learn from watching and listening to you. How you talk about mental illness is how your children will talk about it.
3. Warmth and caring go a long way to improving a child’s mental health. It’s easy to get frustrated and criticize an adolescent for what they’ve done wrong. However, reminding them that they’re still valued and loved is even more important. Teaching a young person to recognize and value their successes does wonders for nurturing positive mental health.
4. Good mental health starts in good homes. About 70% of young adults who’ve experienced a mental illness say their symptoms started in early childhood (here’s a link to the article). If parents pay attention to their own mental health, they will be more in tune with their child’s mental health. By doing so, they are teaching their children to value the mental health needs of others.
Before we complain about the stigma surrounding mental illness, we need to consider how far we’ve come in eradicating that stigma, and how young people are helping us with that goal.
Hoping this bit of psychology helps with your mental and emotional health.
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