For Ara Taiohi Youth Week, psychologist Sara Chatwin offers young people some tips for better mental health.

From Saturday 19 May to Sunday 27 May it’s Ari Taiohi Youth Week, a time to celebrate and empower the young people of New Zealand. We asked Sara Chatwin, a psychologist and coach at Mindworks who has worked extensively with clients around Britomart, to write about one of the biggest issues she sees facing young people today, and give some tips on how to deal with it.

If you’re under the age of 30, your parents probably remember their youth as halcyon days of fun and adventure, where they mucked around with friends, fought sporadically with their own parents and finally grew up. And life may indeed have been simpler back when social media was not such an influence and family life looked a little different from what it looks like today.

Being a young person today can mean many things: there may be increased exposure to substances, alcohol, and sexual relationships. During the teenage transition from childhood to adulthood, psychological changes occur side by side with physical changes. Young people may change schools, friendship circles, and may question authority both at home and at school. You go through internal changes and develop your own sense of identity and views about yourself and the world around you; you may feel a conflict between your growing sense of identity and expectations of them. These changes coupled with physical changes such as growth, sexual awareness, brain development bring many issues to the table that can be unique and confronting for young people and parents alike.

Research in New Zealand and abroad indicates that from puberty mental health issues can increase. Conditions like depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide are hurdles that many young Kiwis have to struggle with and overcome to move through to the adult years. Sadly, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of suicide in the developed world, which is sobering for many adults, who are left wondering what “went wrong” and how things have changed.

Young people today face a different journey from childhood to adulthood. The internet and smartphones have opened up alternative forms of communication which can be useful and positive but also have a darker side (cyberbullying, catfishing) that many adults today have never experienced, so are unaware of the enormous damage that can be done to self-image and self-esteem.

The digital world has also brought a new level to peer pressure. This technology is always switched on and accessible. Even if you’ve have been the target of abuse, it’s hard to opt out of a culture that’s so prolific and that has such a wide audience. Further, when abuse is put onto the internet, getting it taken off or deleted becomes an issue that many have to deal with for a long time.

The good news is that there are several ways that, as a young person, you can improve your ability to deal with the challenges of growing up in the age of technology.

  • Be aware of the dangers of technology and social media. While you may not be able (or want) to avoid it at all costs, look at how much time and energy you’re giving to social media platforms. Easy exercise: for one day note down every time you engage/look/stalk/contribute to any form of social media. Be honest! Then multiply that by seven days, adding a little more time for weekends. You’ll quickly get a view of exactly how much you’re “buying in” or being influenced.
  • Spend an equal amount of time doing other stuff: walking, exercising, catching up with friends and family – face-to-face! There needs to be balance to this thing we call life. When that balance is in place, pressures and anxieties will be lessened or at least will seem to be manageable.
  • Keep things simple. Remember that technology and “stuff” has a way of muddying the waters, making it hard to see what’s important. Do not believe all you read. You are not what social media says you are. Celebrate YOU, and if you find that difficult, go to someone who knows you and cares about you, and ask them.
  • Talk to people you trust. If you feel that life is all a bit daunting, get some advice from a trusted other, someone perhaps older and wiser who may be able to “flick a switch” and help you look at things a different way. This is called getting perspective.
  • If you find it hard talking face-to-face, anonymous helplines can provide really good support and advice in a way that is confidential and non-threatening.

When you think about all that is going on for young people today, you can be excused for feeling a little exhausted! It’s not surprising then that this time of transition, physically and psychologically can often be a time of stress, emotional risk and anxiety. Even the happiest and healthy young people can still have down time and face issues that cause them to doubt themselves and feel a little overwhelmed.

Keeping things simple and getting some advice if you’re needing a fresh perspective, may be just what the ‘psychologist ordered’ to help you be YOU.

– Sara Chatwin at Mindworks

The Ministry of Health publishes a great list of mental health services and helplines. Download it here.