It’s okay to not be okay

17 December 2018

Topic: REACH, Stigma, Voices of young people
Author: Laura Sharpe

Laura Sharpe from See Me to talks about the results of a survey looking at the mental health of young people in Scotland. Graphic text - It's okay not to be okay

Young people can find it hard to talk about their feelings, especially when they are struggling to cope. A survey we carried out by See Me as part of our FeelsFM campaign in September revealed that only 26% of young people would tell someone if they were struggling to cope.

Young people worry that they will not be taken seriously by adults, that their problems will be dismissed, or they will be judged by their friends, teachers, family, even healthcare staff. For many young people in Scotland, this is what mental health stigma and discrimination looks like, and it can have a devastating impact.

‘You’re too young to have depression,’ ‘it’s a phase you’ll grow out of it,’ ‘you’re just being a teenager.’ Phrases like this are often not meant to be harmful, but they stop young people from talking about how they are feeling.

If a young person reaches out for help, but is met with a negative reaction, it can take them over a year to build up the confidence to ask for support again.

The increased demand for services

Over the last few months there has been a lot in the news regarding young people’s mental health, around the Scottish Government's Programme for Government, stats on Children and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS) waiting times, and a recent BBC study which revealed the number of university students in Scotland seeking support for their mental health has increased by two thirds.

One reason often given for the increasing demand on services is that stigma is reducing and more young people are coming forward and asking for help. While there is no doubt we are talking about mental health much more, our survey suggests that stigma and discrimination, or the fear of it, is still stopping young people from reaching out. We ran a similar survey three years ago and at that point 37% said they would tell someone if they were struggling, so this is an area which we must pay attention to.

In fact, 62% of the young people we surveyed said that they think people are treated unfairly if they say they have a mental health condition and internalising these types of responses often result in high levels of self-stigma.

However, 72% said they would be able to talk to someone if they thought that person was struggling with their mental health. This is where we are seeing a positive difference in reducing public stigma, most young people are willing to help and support each other when they are struggling.

See Me volunteer Rebecca Johnson, 22, from Glasgow, first started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks when she was at school. She said:

“People didn’t understand why I stopped going out or why I wasn’t the same. They just put it down to me being a bad friend. Even when I tried to explain they didn’t understand. From my experience, I don’t think young people are taken seriously when it comes to mental health.

“I was 16 when I first reached out for help and the reaction I got from the doctor was awful. I was told I was just stuck in a routine and playing everything up in my head. She told me I shouldn’t book another doctor’s appointment, just changing my routine and exercising more would fix it.

“The whole thing made dealing with life more difficult than it needed to be. But what was positive was that I decided if the help wasn’t there then I could be that help. So I am now studding psychology as I want to be a child psychologist.”

Tune into Feels FM

For Scotland's Year of Young People we’ve been working with creative agency Studio Something to find a new way to help young people to talk about mental health. We developed, an emoji powered jukebox, designed to help young people express their feelings and use music as a positive coping strategy.

They can go on the site; pick an emoji that represents how they feel and FeelsFM will make a playlist that reflects that feeling. While it’s loading it asks young people their views on what makes it easy, or difficult for to speak about how they’re feeling and find out their ideas to tackle stigma.

Alongside the online jukebox organisations have been holding FeelsFM activities, taking the discussion into youth clubs, schools, universities etc.

Creating change

This is just one part of creating the change we want to see. Embedding lasting change must include prevention and early intervention ensuring children and young people are having open conversations from an early age, so mental health is seen as something we all have, and not just talked about when someone is struggling.

To get help, children need a good adult they can trust. It only takes one adult to make a difference to a young person’s life, we all have the power to listen and help someone to get the support they need.

Due to the lack of open conversations young people also find it hard to identify or access where to find the right help and support. Through embedding mental health within education whilst challenging the prevailing stigma and discrimination lasting change can be achieved for children, young people and communities across Scotland.

Laura Sharpe is Education and Young People’s Manager at See Me.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

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