Poor mental health is a huge issue among young people across Ireland and at the extreme end of this continuum; we continue to lose too many young people to suicide on a weekly basis – often a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
While the problem of suicide is vast, this is the end point of a continuum that often begins with stress, anxiety and depression. In young people, these symptoms and presentations are increasing exponentially and this is something that should concern us all. In my opinion, it has reached epidemic proportions with huge proportions of young people feeling inadequate and indulging in self harm. The statistics will support my view.
Recently, a “Young Lives in Ireland” study – a school-based study of mental health and suicide prevention within 17 mainstream schools in Cork and Kerry was carried out by the National Suicide Research Foundation. The study – carried out on over 1,000 children with an average age of 13 – 16 found that 14% of teenagers had depressive symptoms, 24% had anxiety and up to 20% had attempted self-harm.
Scarily, it stated that the rate of attempted suicide among school-age teenagers could be as high as one child per class with findings suggesting that up to 7% of participants having suicidal thoughts. Significantly, in this study, 4% had attempted suicide.
This is not an isolated study and in 2012, similar figures were found by Dr Barbara Dooley of UCD in the “My World Survey” conducted with Irish students between 12 and 25. Here it was found also that 21% had depression and or anxiety and that the suicidal attempt rate was higher at 7%. This suggests that the rate of suicide increases as young people progress through their teens and into their early twenties.
In my current role, I regularly see the pain and anguish this is having on families’. Like many front line workers on too many occasions, I have met with parents distraught with worry over their teenage children’s unhappiness, self harm, suicidal ideation and low self worth while the mental health services are creaking at the seams!
The problem is complex but we must ask ourselves why it is occurring in such huge proportions.
As we are continually told, we have an obesity epidemic in Ireland and at current rates of growth, are forecast to be the worst in the world by 2030. At exactly the same time, the world has developed social media and young people all over the country are becoming addicted to their technology. No problem here you say? You could not be more wrong!
Comparatively on average, a youth today doesn’t move as much as one used to. Our society of convenience sees that they no longer have to. Communication with friends occurs through a different medium than previous – as social media facilitates communication between youths from the comfort of their own home. Where previously, “hanging out” involved some form of physical contact, effort and memory forming exertion; the development of Wifi, Skype, FaceTime, House-party, Snapchat and other social media communication apps facilitates young people to “hang out” with anyone from anywhere in the world from the comfort of their own bedroom with the click of a button.
Some platforms can even facilitate 3 or four in live screen conversation while Whatsapp, Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram among others allow us to communicate with bigger numbers in both private and public conversations!
Video gamers can communicate with friends through the internet headsets from the comfort of their own homes. Worse still, children and adolescents anonymously send picture messages and text each other through social media apps such as Kik and Sarahah - a legal minefield for bullying that in extreme cases, requires laborious manual labour on the part of An Garda Siochana to sort out.
We can travel the world on our phone and meet who we want from the comfort of our own sofa and as a result, children and young people meet less to interact in fun, sweat inducing and memory forming activities or minor games like their predecessors. Social media in it's essence is isolating people from each other - so much so that some mental health professionals have even labeled it anti-social media!
In a recent conversation with youth mental health professionals from the Rutland Centre, I was informed of a new phenomenon of mobile phone / social media addiction / gaming where teenagers stay up most of the night to tend to “snap-chat streaks”, social media group interactions and gaming. With tens and even hundreds of people in some groups, the mobile phone doesn’t stop at night with many teenagers losing out on sleep.
As we all know, lack of sleep and poor sleep quality leaves people agitated and contributes to elevated levels of anxiety. Even those who do not comment have interrupted sleep through regular alerts and notifications. Social media and gaming devices also emit a blue light that has a different wavelength of Gama rays than regular light. Long exposure to this blue light results in restriction of the release of melatonin – a sleep inducing neuro-transmitter that is naturally released by the brain to help facilitate sleep. As a result, people who use social media or gaming devices late at night struggle to get the quality sleep they once got naturally, adding to levels of anxiety the next day.
The issue with gaming addiction has become so prevalent that the World Health Organisation (WHO) have categorized it as a mental illness in the same way that they have categorized alcohol and gambling addiction.
These companies are very clever and have sought the expertise of the best psychologists in the world in making their product, games and apps addictive for young people. The more engagement they get, the higher the share price increasing profitability for their angel investors and creators. Who’d have ever thought that they could get young people addicted to sending blank messages to their friends over breakfast to increase their share price - in the way that maintenance of Snapchat “streaks” have become of central importance to young people? It is amazing that it has got to this level but the users are just pawns in a charade that is more about corporate profit than the well-being of it’s users.
Mental health professionals have also reported increases in volumes of separation anxiety when young people are “coming down” off their social media and gaming devices. How often do we see young people become uncontrollable demons as their parents try to “unwire” them from their gaming and social media devices. Some professionals have even suggested that the dopamine hits that young people are subjected to during their use of these devices are more addictive than cocaine.
The impact of technology has had a phenomenal effect on our social and physical landscape – notably, meaningful relationships, communication skills, energy levels, sleep patterns and our average daily release of a neuro-transmitter called serotonin.
Reduction in release of serotonin
A natural side effect of the increase of social media app and gaming use is a reduction in exercise participation and physical activity. The reduction of serotonin release (a natural good mood juice released in brain during physical activity) sees that young people do not ever feel as relaxed or as tired as we once did generally as a human race. What many don’t realise is that lack of serotonin release from the brain is one of the major causes of depression and anxiety. We need to move more to feel better!
The computerization of many physical tasks now sees the reduction of physical labour required around the home. The cutting of turf, felling of trees and chopping of wood is now replaced with the pushing of a button while a robot can now hoover the floor and cut the grass where we once sweated our Saturdays away behind our push lawn-mowers. The same can be said for washing of clothes and dinner ware as our convenience society and computerization of tasks takes hold.
The result is often that our young people rarely have the volume of chores we once had and very often fill this time behind some form of screen. Meanwhile, youth mental health services are creaking at the seams as they struggle to contend with the volume of young people – the pawns in the charade – who are struggling to cope as a result.
Keith Begley is an Irish based sport psychologist accredited with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport