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Youth mental health is in crisis and NZ is failing to keep up

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The introduction of a free youth mental-health pilot for Porirua, and later the wider Wellington region, is welcome news. Unfortunately, the rising incidence of serious mental-health suffering among our young people means this will still be far too little, far too late.

Never mind putting the proverbial fence at the top of the cliff, we barely even have an ambulance at the bottom for those who fall. The Government has rightly prioritised mental health in its “well-being” reorientation of the Budget process and has increased spending on it. But this is still a public service in crisis. As with many struggling sectors, finding skilled staff may be as much of an issue as funding. But it is far too hard to get stricken young people into “the system”, and waiting lists are so long as to be almost pointless.

It’s not hyperbole to say our young people face an epidemic. Clinical depression, anxiety and other mental disorders among children and teens are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Our suicide levels are in line with the OECD average, but for males under 25, we have the highest rate – and Māori are disproportionately represented in that distressing statistic.

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International research indicates these problems cannot be seen as normal teenage hormone-related angst, peer pressure or exam stress. Too often, these are full-blown cases of depression, body dysmorphic disorder, phobias, self-harm and other life-blighting afflictions that need urgent and intensive treatment.

The triggers are multifactorial. The influence of social media looms largest, but also in the frame is overwhelming anxiety about the environment and global warming, and about the rapid changes in global workplaces, ramping up youth uncertainty about future career paths and housing affordability – even about the future of family life itself.

Social media is the primary factor, however, because it can amplify all of the above and catastrophise the common anxieties young people have about their looks and their right to be here. It can serve to not just normalise but glorify self-harm and suicide. And it’s also the primary means for bullying.

These influences are almost insurmountable. Youngsters can’t easily accept that there is no need to worry. The future is uncertain, and the pace of change is accelerating. New Zealand psychologists report children having panic attacks at just five years old.

The optimal “fence at the top of the cliff” would be built of profound social change at a global level, but while we wait and hope for this, experts continue to research ways to equip young generations with better emotional tools to deal with life. Restricting and regulating social media, as Britain is about to do, may help with that.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has issued re­commendations to limit children’s online time after data collated on 11,000 14-year-olds showed depressive symptoms rose steadily the more they used social media. The UK Government is considering banning social-media companies that fail to take down harmful material – a measure prompted by the campaigning of bereaved parents after a slew of teen suicides believed to be linked to social media. In one case, the parents of a British teen believe she killed herself after finding images of self-harm and suicide on social media, specifically Instagram and Pinterest.

Most parents already do all they can to keep children from harming influences and to broaden their focus. The Lancet medical journal reports that limiting recreational screen time to two hours a day and having sufficient sleep and physical activity are associated with improved cognition in children aged eight to 11.

However, social media is a horse that, having already bolted, will be nigh impossible to tether. Though sites such as Facebook and Instagram bar those under 13, this is almost never enforced – nor, probably, is it enforceable. And no caregiver can hover eternally over a child’s shoulder, let alone inside their mind. We urgently need services of the type being trialled in Porirua – for everyone, but particularly for the young.

As things stand, even those suffering from seriously life-threatening disorders such as anorexia are considered fortunate if they receive timely help. Yet, even from a fiscal standpoint, this would be money well spent. Early mental-health suffering can blight lives. And when our young people suffer, we all suffer.

This editorial was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.