The recently published research on the deteriorating mental health of young people - girls and young women in particular - forces us to confront some stark realities about today’s world and of how support is provided.
"Your whole life is played out in public, like a 24/7 interactive news stream... And yet, in this ultra-connected world, mental health support services for younger people are still designed and delivered on a model conceived by and for the 20th century. Rather than expecting young people to come to services, we need to take services out to young people."
I write from the perspective of a foster carer and carer trainer. The world that younger people are growing up in today is fundamentally different from that of 20 years ago. The internet, social media, streaming services, smart phones... today’s world is always instant, always connected, always available.
Social connectivity is not an optional add-on for young people. It is a central, defining part of their daily lives. For them, it has always existed. It is their default setting. The whole world is a mere tap and a swipe away.
But we should not confuse access to information with understanding of information. Young people are bombarded with mixed messages about who and how to be. Their cultural environment is defined by likes and shares, blogs and memes.
Navigating this landscape is, as one of my foster girls told me, like living in a minefield. Anything and everything can explode in your face and it can happen in a heartbeat. Your whole life, and everyone else’s, is played out in public, like a 24/7 interactive news stream.
For girls and young women, more opportunities in work and education is countered by increasingly sexist, sexualised attitudes towards women and how they should look, what they should do and how they should be. It seems equality can go backwards as well as forwards.
I come across increasing instances of already vulnerable girls and young women being pressurised and coerced by “boyfriends” to enact a range of their porn-induced fantasies. The consequences are severe – self harm, eating disorders, drug and alcohol problems, depression and suicide – and increasing.
And yet, in this ultra-connected world, mental health support for younger people are still designed and delivered on a model conceived by and for the 20th century – go to your GP, convince them you have a problem, get a referral, wait months for a response, take a day out of school/college to go to a clinic on the other side of town, sit in a room and talk to a complete stranger about your problems. On. Your. Own.
Support in minutes
Young people can get tech support for their mobile device in minutes. Yet, somehow, we expect them to wait months for mental health support for their emotional wellbeing.
We need to radically redesign how mental health support is delivered for younger people, who want a service response that is always on. Waiting times that are measured in minutes, not months. Online support that is available through Skype, FaceTime, private messages, and text. App-based support and advice. Same-day, face-to-face sessions with the nearest available therapist, in a convenient location – an Uber for your soul.
Rather than expecting young people to come to services, we need to take services out to young people. We need to seek them out, set up peripatetic clinics, run peer-support groups and deliver training to the people who see them every day.
But it’s not enough to be picking up the pieces of sexual abuse without confronting the cause. The elephant in the room. Boys and men. In their search for who to be, they find a world filled with distorted images of male entitlement and female objectification. And we are failing to respond to this, to their self esteem and insecurities.
And we can’t palm this off as too hard, or someone else’s job. Mental health services need to be part of the solution. A 21st century solution.
Tony Roberts is a foster carer, a trainer for foster carers and children’s care staff, and a consultant in service design. He has been a psychiatric nurse, a public health specialist in mental health and a service commissioner for the NHS and Local Authorities. In 2008, he won the NHS Health and Social Care Award for “Innovation in Mental Health”.