Toxic trap for young minds

24th September 2010 at 01:00

Is there a connection between the latest figures released by the British Red Cross on children drinking, rising numbers of young people with mental health problems and increasing demands by adolescents for instant gratification?

A friend who is a clinical psychologist reports seeing increasing numbers of children with mental health problems. Nationwide, estimates vary on the exact number, but possibly 3-10 per cent of teenagers are sufferers. Significantly, more than half of the adults who develop depression say they can pinpoint early symptoms before the age of 20.

Children experiencing mental health problems usually find the situation traumatic to deal with, because often they haven't heard of mental distress. They will, therefore, keep their feelings and thoughts to themselves and suffer alone, because they don't know what's happening to them.

It can be difficult. Children who are depressed often internalise their feelings and present as normal. Research has shown that, while parents and teachers become aware of behavioural problems, children describe more emotional distress than their parents recognise. Along with an intuition that youngsters' mental health problems are increasing comes the recent shocking news that many children, some as young as 11, are drinking alcohol and causing themselves injuries because they're so drunk.

One in five of 11 to 16-year-olds have been drunk on average three times in the past six months in the UK and one in three of 14-16s drink to excess every weekend, with this group drinking on average 11 units - equivalent to 7.5 alcopops or four large cans of beer or cider.

These findings mark the launch of "Life. Live It", a British Red Cross campaign aimed at 11 to 16-year-olds, to help young people learn life-saving skills, so that they are better able to cope in an emergency.

Shockingly, in the past 12 months, more than one in 10 children in the UK aged between 11 and 16 have been left to cope with a drunken friend who was sick, injured or unconscious. Half of those have had to deal with someone who had passed out, and a quarter had helped a friend who had been injured in a drunken fight.

This has all to be set in the context of a society which has raised the expectations of young people to a point where they favour activities which give them easy pleasure. Mobile phones, social networking sites, Xboxes, all yield immediate satisfaction in ways that teasing out the complexities of science, foreign languages or any subject on the curriculum can never do.

Attention spans are arguably shorter than they have ever been. The realm of fast responses and press-button success is particularly daunting for the solitary child who is not receiving multiple text messages and positive Facebook comments. Increasingly, he withdraws, and bullying becomes the default setting for the treatment dished out to him by others. Sooner or later, he might well suffer from depression.

The excessive alcohol consumption by younger and younger children is disturbing. Is this part of a need to be permanently blissed out, or are these children driven into under-age drinking by the pressures of lives which offer superficial solutions to the age-old search for meaning and purpose?

It's a toxic mixture - increased mental illness, mounting alcohol intake and some very unhappy youngsters. A bleak landscape indeed, it seems.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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