I have this recurring memory. I’m about eight years-old, sitting alone on top of the monkey bars in the school playground. The sun is setting and I know the after-school care lady will call me in soon. It’s a clear summer night, and I can just see the ocean. A perfect Sydney twilight; the sky is pink and orange, the water deepest blue.
I don’t remember what I was thinking about up there, but I remember how I felt. It’s a feeling I have often. All at once I feel completely empty and uncomfortably full; totally numb and highly emotional. It’s as if I’m feeling all the feelings in the world, but also none of them.
I had a wonderful childhood – loving parents, doting grandparents, lots of friends, a cool cat – but there were always hints of darkness, and many more sunsets on the monkey bars. At 19 I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, and while on one hand I was devastated, on the other I was relieved. The feeling had a name.
All at once I feel completely empty and uncomfortably full; totally numb and highly emotional.
Mission Australia has released the findings of its annual Youth Survey. Now in its 16th year, an unprecedented 24,055 teenagers aged 15 – 19 took part in 2017. According to the survey, and for the first time ever, mental health has been identified as the number one concern for teenagers nationally. Mental health was the top concern for 33.7% of participants, the answer more than doubling since 2015.
Digging deeper, more young people who identify as female (38.5%) nominated mental health as a major fear, compared to those who identify as male (27.5%). Participants were personally anxious about a range of issues related to mental health, including coping with stress and body image; and approximately one quarter of respondents are either ‘very concerned’ or ‘extremely concerned’ about depression specifically.
I’ve been asked to write about how I feel about these numbers, about whether or not they surprise me. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I write openly about my own experience of depression, about the reality of living with a mental illness. And the truth is, I’m not surprised at all.
In Australia, we’re increasingly educated about mental health disorders. Well, we’re still largely uninformed about severe psychiatric and personality illnesses such as bipolar, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder, but anxiety and depression are now part of our lexicon. People of all ages, from all backgrounds, in urban centres and rural towns, are now comfortable seeking help and speaking up. We haven’t reached a stigma-free Nirvana, but we’re moving forward.
People of all ages, from all backgrounds, in urban centres and rural towns, are now comfortable seeking help and speaking up.
I don’t know if the spike in young people’s preoccupation with mental health present in Mission Australia’s report reveals an increase in actual cases of mental illness, an increase in people publicly declaring their diagnoses, or both. Whatever the explanation, it points to a new generation’s heightened consciousness of issues those gone before it didn’t comprehend.
When I was a teenager, mental illness wasn’t spoken about as openly as it is today. I knew about depression, anxiety and what was then called manic depression as abstract concepts, but I had little idea what they looked like in reality. Even in my own family, which has a history mental illness, mentions of such were always veiled in secrecy and judgement. ‘Nana had breakdowns’; ‘Aunt Rachel’s a psycho’; ‘Mark isn’t quite right’.
Most of the films and TV shows of my adolescence did little to represent mental illness accurately, instead regurgitating and reinforcing stereotypes of mental illness as something to fear and mistrust. Afflicted characters tended to fit into three typecasts: moody and morose; kooky and ethereal; or unhinged and violent. And some presented as all three. There were a few movies and shows that did a decent job, and there are certainly many that continue to get it wrong today, but the balance seems to have shifted.
A population that’s aware of its weaknesses and obstacles might just be stronger for it.
High school was tough sometimes, but isn’t high school tough sometimes for everybody? Over the course of a few hours I could be miserable, manic, obsessive, ecstatic, all of the above or none at all; but the alarm was never raised because teenagers are expected to be like that. In hindsight, sure, I’d wager I spent more time writing Pearl Jam lyrics in my diary and crying than most of my friends, but we were grunge and goth kids so sadness was our MO.
I recently found my diary from when I was 15. Aside from being extremely entertaining in parts – special mentions to a terrible song I wrote about drug addiction, and a letter I wrote to adult me reminding myself to “be individual” – it signals a kid struggling to understand why she’s so sad all the time. Looking back, it’s hard to tell what was depression and what was puberty; what was regular teenage angst and what sat me high on the mental bell curve. It was only when the angst continued long after I left high school that my affliction became evident. And then we had no idea what to do.
I guess what I’m saying is that the upswing in concern about mental illness among teenagers might not necessarily be a bad thing. A population that’s aware of its weaknesses and obstacles might just be stronger for it. But awareness is futile without the implementation of systems in institutions such as schools and youth centres, that promote early detection and intervention, teach friends and family how to help, and work towards practical outcomes for all.
As Mission Australia’s CEO James Toomey said of the report: ‘Important work is already happening to destigmatise mental health issues and it is significant that young people are becoming more aware of the impacts mental illness can have on their lives and those around them. However, the fact that mental health has climbed to become the top national concern for young people reinforces that much more needs to be done.’
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