Yesterday, I attended a Public Policy Exchange conference entitled ‘Mental Health and Young People: Promoting a Positive and Healthy Body Image’. If the title didn’t quite give it away, we were talking about how we can help young people create a positive/healthy body image which could lead to higher self esteem and generally improve their quality of life alongside performance at school. Below are some actions we discussed:
Schools have an enormous impact on young people and the way they view themselves and the world around them. We would love to see mental health embedded in school policy and/or the curriculum so that it is no longer regarded as the job of one subject or teacher. Instead of passing liability, collective school bodies could seize responsibility for the emotional wellbeing of their students simply by implementing it into their school ethos.
Social media is a powerful tool. We are the generation of selfie takers! We believe that young people could use social media in a more positive way. We have many campaigns aimed at young people to help them develop positive emotional wellbeing; at The Motivation Project we have #IAm. You may also recognise #ThisGirlCan (Sport England) and #FeelBeautifulFor (Dove). Young people are the most creative people on the planet. If they created their own campaigns amongst friends or student/community boards it would increase their chances of using it and enjoying it!
There is still stigma surrounding mental health. How often do we hear ‘I’m not qualified to talk about this’? We’re all qualified because we all have mental health! As adults it’s our duty to make sure that children and teens can talk openly and honestly about what is going on in their minds. When a child has a sore tummy we expect them to tell us, why should it be any different if they’re experiencing negative thoughts? Having a strong support system in place between home and school can do absolute wonders for a child’s resilience.
When discussing mental health in young people it just so happens we often end up talking about girls over boys. We’re raising young men to believe that expressing their emotions is not acceptable or ‘manly’. However, suicide remains to be the biggest killer in young men (Guardian, 2015). This shocking rate ranks three times higher than that in young women. We could do young men real justice (and perhaps young women too) by treating their emotional wellbeing as equally important of that in girls and allow them the freedom to open up more.
We continually separate physical and mental health as if independent of each other, despite us understanding more and more about the mind/body connection. If mental health was considered equal to physical health we could save the NHS a lot of money; for example the rising annual cost to the NHS to treat eating disorders (Beat, 2015). I personally would love to see physical education teachers refer more to the connection between the mind and body. We know that professional athletes aren’t just physically fit but are also mentally prepared to tackle potential challenges within sport.
To conclude (if it isn’t already obvious) we really have our work cut out! We hope to see a rise in research investment in this area so that we can PROVE what works and what doesn’t. In terms of my work with The Motivation Project, I am going to continue to ask teenagers for their opinion on all of the above. The conference took place on their behalf and only they know best which actions will truly make a difference!