By Sally Dicketts, Chief Executive of Activate Learning
Follow Sally on twitter @sallydicketts
Recent research suggests that young girls in particular are showing more signs of emotional distress.
Research by University College London and the Anna Freud Centre compared the mental health of more than 1,600 11 to 13-year old boys and girls in 2009 and 2014. The results found the number of girls at risk of emotional problems had increased sharply, from 13 to 20 per cent within five years. Meanwhile the level of other mental health and behavioural problems remained fairly static.
So what’s going on behind the statistics?
Although our levels of empathy decrease during adolescence, young girls are still more likely than boys to become attuned to feelings of distress in others. They may not yet however have the capacity and skills to give support without being adversely affected themselves.
Those commenting on the research have suggested that the increasing pressure on girls to perform academically, coupled with anxiety over body image amplified by social media, could be behind the rise.
It begs the question as to whether today’s young people face more pressures than their parents’ generation did, or whether the culture in which they operate is heightening levels of stress.
As Eleanor Doughty wrote in The Telegraph online, many of the things that occupy teenage minds – exams, relationships, future ambitions – are unchanged. Social media has had a major impact on these way thoughts and feelings are shared, but that can be helpful as much as it can induce feelings of stress.
I am inclined to agree, and I don’t think there is yet sufficient research into the effects of social media to lay blame at its doors. I do however believe that children are growing up in busier homes where the growth in digital technologies makes it harder to compete for attention. We all want to be heard but we are losing the art of listening, and if you don’t feel listened to you can soon feel isolated. It is a point explored by Nancy Kline in her book, ‘Time to Think’, and an issue that educators should take notice of. We need to help young people develop good listening skills to support their social interactions and build their resilience.
I also believe that young people face a more fiercely competitive jobs market than generations before. When I grew up getting a degree set you apart from the competition. Today it has become commonplace and students are expected to achieve at least a 2:1 and must offer additional skills and experience to stand out. Candidates are competing in a global jobs market and one which offers much less job security than it did for their parents.
This research is significant for those educating young people in schools and colleges. It suggests that we need to be much better at detecting signs of emotional distress, which can get overlooked in light of more obvious behavioural problems.
It also adds weight to the argument for incorporating mindfulness techniques into our teaching and learning as we build young people’s resilience and help them take ownership of those things they can change, and let go of issues outside their control.