Bereavement, bullying, sexual abuse, neglect – handling what life may throw at you during your youth can be difficult enough. But the scale of pressures facing young people today are not only unprecedented but being compounded by societal transformations wrought by the digital age. The question is – have our education and support structures kept pace with the changing times?

What is life like for young people in Britain in 2016? – Check out the Viceland UK Census

The stats would suggest not. Rates of mental illness and suicide in the UK are skyrocketing: mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, now affect about 1 in 10 young people. Suicide is the biggest killer of people under 35 (1,556 young men and women took their own lives in 2014), student suicide is the highest it has been in almost a decade and many thousands year on year contemplate suicide, harm themselves, or suffer in silence, afraid of the consequences of speaking out about their feelings.

Marking World Mental Health Day 2016 with event Mental Health Matters, the RSA sought to confront this reality head on by opening up a frank debate on the challenge of scaling up interventions and embedding a more positive mental health culture in the UK.

“My own battle with mental health started with the film The Truman Show,” panellist Jonny Benjamin told the policy-makers, practitioners and campaigners gathered for the event. “I believed I myself was in a version of it.” Diagnosed at the age of 20 with schizoaffective disorder, Jonny bravely shared his story, including an inexplicably long wait to receive clinical help: “Would someone with a broken leg be asked to wait 3 years for treatment? I think not.” And being left without the space, language or safe port of call he needed to start understanding and addressing his own mental health.

“I reached the point where I was ready to commit suicide from a bridge. But I was intercepted by a stranger. I actually ran a campaign to find him, but never did.” Having seen first-hand the devastating effects of insufficient support and a lack of timely intervention, Jonny is now doing all he can to prevent other young people falling through those same cracks. Carving a new path as an award-winning mental health campaigner, film producer, public speaker, writer and vlogger, he is channelling his personal experiences positively to blow the lid on the issue of mental illness in the UK.

“75% mental illnesses manifest before the age of 25,” he explained. “Yet in our school system, there is no place for proper mental health education. My first exposure to mental illness at school was studying One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest…it needs to be embedded in school curriculums, not a once in a blue moon in thing.”

Panel member Lord Victor Adebowale, Chief Executive of Turning Point and NHS England Board Member, responded candidly about the failings of an ageing NHS system, whose structures are no longer fit for purpose and appear to be “running on analog in a digital era.” Charlotte Alldritt,  a fellow at RSA and Chair of the panel, highlighted the damning finding that two-thirds of successful suicides had seen their GP in the previous month.

Sarah Brennan, Chief Executive of Young Minds, emphasised the need to understand better the various factors contributing to anxiety in young people today. For example: new phenomena of the digital era such as the ease of access to porn, online bullying, and the correlation between social media use and depression; the gaps created by a breakdown in traditional support networks of close-knit communities and family structures; and, the reduced capacity of over-stretched teachers and primary healthcare givers to fill those gaps: “The key is to have one consistent adult in the frame – it needn’t be a parent, but it needs to be someone.”

But what became plain throughout the discussion was that improving practical care and intervention will be far from the full solution – just as critical will be confronting stubborn stereotypes and breaking down stigma. Jonny asked pointedly: “Where are the positive representations in film and media of mental illness? Its negative portrayal fuels stigma.” And he’s right – though there are signs of a move toward a new found realism and sensitivity in the representation of mental illness, there are still unhelpful and misleading depictions, particularly those linking it with violence. In the same way the media and entertainment industry are finally embracing greater diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender and sexuality, we now need to see a step change in order to start smashing down, not only archaic but damaging perceptions of mental illness.

Films about mental illness: what is the impact of media portrayals of mental illness?
Films about mental illness: what impact do media depictions of mental disorders have?

Crucially, combating stigma also comes down to education in schools: enabling children to understand their psychological wellbeing as equally important as their physical health, and teachers to educate confidently about difficult issues and recognise warning signs. As Jonny proposed: “It doesn’t need to be expensive: a mindfulness session can be held with a classroom en masse; mental wellbeing can be taught alongside physical health.”

Education amongst adults is also important: unresolved mental health issues in parents and judgemental attitudes will inevitably transmit through to young people. Perhaps parents believe they are protecting their children by avoiding the labelling that diagnosis can bring, concerned not only for how it might impact their experience at school but also limit their future career. But it is through this parental fear and prevention of early diagnosis that young people are left with even more severe disorders in their adult years.

5 ways to wellbeing: education in mental health is crucial for kids and adults
5 ways to wellbeing: Education in mental health is crucial for both kids and adults

Furthermore, where there are signs of a growing trend and acceptance for mental health therapies – a deluge of self-help quotes, meditation tips and mindfulness courses fill the internet – this is firmly taking hold within the affluent classes, ironically far from where the most urgent issues lie and disproportionately excluding low-income and black and minority ethnic groups. Affordable branded mental health access points are also severely lacking – the ‘mental health’ tag associated with state-provided centres or treatment programmes often forming a deterrent in itself.

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Mindfulness: Mental health therapies should be for everyone

The facts suggest that not only as a society are we still struggling to challenge taboos over mental illness, but we are fatally failing our young people in ensuring they get the help and support they need to face their present day realities. No longer an issue we can brush under the carpet, it’s time we get comfortable talking about mental health and help young people to do the same – otherwise, we may have a ticking time-bomb on our hands.

By Sarah Bradbury. Mental Health Matters was held on 13th October 2016 at RSA House to mark World Mental Health Day 2016. Find more information here or watch the RSA Replay below: