Press Release

Teenagers identify what helps and what hurts their mental health

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Barry Andrews TD and Minister for Disability and Mental Health, John Moloney TD today launched Teenage Mental Health: What Helps and What Hurts? A Report of consultations with teenagers. Speaking at the launch, Minister Andrews said, ‘I am committed to ensuring that children and young people have a voice in matters that affect their lives, as stated in the National Children’s Strategy (2000). The recently published Ryan Commission Report highlights the importance of listening to children and of providing them with opportunities to communicate their concerns and problems’.

Minister Andrews noted that the report outlines the views of 277 teenagers aged 12-18 years, who took part in consultations organised by his Office during October 2008. ‘Young people report the negative impact of being judged on how they look and the level of bullying that has become an everyday part of life, particularly in the school setting. Other aspects of their education are identified as damaging to their mental health, but also as having the potential to promote positive mental health,’ he continued. Minister Andrews added, ‘the findings of this report will challenge policy makers, decision makers, service providers and practitioners far and beyond those working in the field of mental health. The education system, schools, local government, the media, parents, family members and young people themselves are all identified as having an important role to play in supporting positive mental health’.

Minister Moloney stated, ‘I want us to break the taboo, which still surrounds mental illness and empower people with mental health problems. The fact that our teenagers are comfortable to talk about what helps or hurts their mental health gives me considerable hope that the tide is turning on the stigma associated with mental health and mental illness. The National Office for Suicide Prevention is spearheading a campaign aimed at teenagers to raise awareness of mental health issues. Our priority is to create an environment where young people who may have mental health difficulties feel comfortable and able to seek help from family, friends or health professionals’.

Six teenagers, who took part in the consultations at different locations around the country, outlined the outcomes from the consultations described in the report. Maggie Gethings from Dublin said, ‘at the consultations, we discovered that, unlike adults, we teenagers don’t only see mental health in a negative way, but also in a positive light’. Teenagers identified eight key areas that hurt their mental health, self-image, school pressure and exams, family problems, bullying, death, peer-pressure, relationships with boyfriends and girlfriends and isolation. The teenagers also identified many things that could help with problems in the areas of exams, facilities and supports, relationships, family and self-image. ‘Adults need to realise that teenagers can hurt as badly as adults, especially on issues such as death and relationships. Teenagers’ feelings need to be taken seriously’ concluded Maggie.

Danny Costello, also from Dublin, said that among the top issues that hurt mental health were self-image and bullying. ‘Self-image is a big part of a typical teenager’s life. It can be unbearable for any young teenager to see the attractive people on TV or in magazines, and see the way that they are not like those people. Girls especially are more influenced by the media in a negative rather than a positive way’. Danny went on to say, ‘bullying came up at every consultation venue. Bullying goes on 24/7 in all different ways. School was found to the place where the most bullying takes place. Bullying by people your own age is very hurtful. The impact from bullying can lead to a lot of different things, including self-harm and suicide. The teenagers at the consultations said that bullying can lead to depression, which makes young people feel that there is no way out and no one there for them’.

Martin Clancy from County Leitrim spoke about how school or exam pressures and family issues emerged as key hurts for teenagers’ mental health. ‘Participants said that there is too much focus on doing well in one set of exams, which potentially dictate what you do with your life. They feel that there is too much pressure to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life at just 16’ said Martin. Teachers were found to play a role in creating this stress and pressure, with some teachers ignoring non-academic talents and skills and favouring students who are high academic achievers. ‘A negative family environment emerged as one of the greatest stresses for young people. Any kind of abuse such as alcohol or drug abuse, sexual abuse or living with somebody with an eating disorder makes things worse. Fighting within the family can put huge pressure and stress on teenagers’ concluded Martin.

Claire O’Shea from Limerick spoke about how the school system could help teenager’s mental health. ‘Students at the consultations felt that there should be at least one class per week on mental health, with the issues chosen by young people and taught by teachers who understand and care,’ said Claire. Young people also favoured a move away from sole reliance on exams to continuous assessment. They want the curriculum to be more holistic and integrate sport, art and drama to cater for different abilities and skill sets, with an option in every school to sit the Leaving Cert Applied. Students proposed a confidential mentor, advisor or guidance councillor in every school. ‘In my school, we have peer mentoring, where the first-year students are mentored by the fifth-year students, which creates friendship networks and builds a sense of community in the school’ concluded Claire.

Julie O’Shea from Bantry, County Cork highlighted how leisure facilities and other supports for young people can help mental health. ‘Young people noted the lack of facilities for teenagers and stressed the importance of setting up youth cafes or clubs, which have free teen health and counselling services. Another point made at the consultations, was that well organised discos, with proper supervision are hugely important, especially in rural areas. We also consider recreational activities hobbies and sports to be very important in maintaining positive mental health as they help you to let off steam. All these facilities need to be affordable and accessible, particularly transport,’ said Julie.

David Matthews from Ballymahon, County Longford said, ‘We teenagers chose all the topics discussed at the consultations and the report is an account of exactly what we said. We discussed the signs of poor mental health and agreed that a change in someone’s personality can be a tell tale sign – where somebody’s behaviour, character or attitude to life changes dramatically. We agreed that it can be very difficult to tell if someone has a problem because “it’s normal to be moody as a teenager”. The participants felt that suicide rates in Ireland would be a lot lower if the signs were picked up on. Young people need to be informed about the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and what to do if they are in that position. I am delighted to see that this report has already had some impact, especially in the National Office for Suicide Prevention advertising campaign, which will be launched in the next few months. We hope that this report and awareness campaign will persuade politicians and decision makers to improve mental health services and supports for young people’.

Read the Report