Resilience in Children and Young Adults

At some point during our lifetime, one in four of us will experience a common mental health disorder such as depression and anxiety; and research shows us that three out of four  of such cases have begun by the time the sufferer is eighteen.   So, doing the maths, that means that around three out of every eighteen-year-olds has already encountered at least one episode of anxiety and or depression.  That’s nearly 20% – and unfortunately the number of young people who do suffer is getting bigger each year.   So if you are over eighteen you may have already experienced such problems, but even if not,  we all have friends and relatives who have such problems.

When people experience such an episode of conditions like anxiety and depression,  they establish “thought pathways” that spiral downward. So that in the future, when they encounter another “trigger” situation they slide down the same pathway… reinforcing it… and so on – making further episodes more and more likely.

And in many cases the “trigger” doesn’t have to be something big – it could be some relatively minor setback that triggers thoughts leading to anxiety or depression.  The good news is that  in recent years, mindfulness has been used to train our  “attention” –  so that we are more aware of our reactions, thoughts and emotions.. and so we can become more resilient to  common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.  This way we can avoid being triggered and so become less susceptible to such episodes.

So let’s go back to the 20% of eighteen-year-olds who have incubated as problem – why are our children more likely than ever to develop such problems?  – is it the way we raise them? – or is it their access to social media so that they are constantly comparing themselves with the  idealised version of other and reducing their own self esteem?

At Carina Sciences we are worried about this trend – we want to build-up  the resilience in children and young people so  that we reduce the possibility or severity of conditions like anxiety and depression.  Yet using mindfulness to build the resilience of kids is a challenge –  how to engage them? How to use language that they will respond to?  We are thinking hard about how we can work with the 12 to 18 age group so that we can reduce the possibility of establishing common mental health disorders that they may carry into adulthood.

Yet there are other types of intervention that can build resilience, self-confidence and self-esteem.   I saw this  this piece in The Telegraph to say, that this month, the Department of Education will be sending  teachers and parents lists of activities for children to complete, which aim to build “character, drive and resilience”.  Here.

The Telegraph tells us that “Among the activities children will be encouraged to do are painting a self-portrait, posting a letter, going on a hike, planning and cooking a meal and flying a kite.  The Department for Education said it hoped the scheme would teach children traits such as “drive and tenacity, sticking at the task at hand [and] understanding how to work towards long term goals when reward might be a long way off in the future”.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds said: “I regularly hear from teachers that it’s important that children have the chance to try things out, to get a taste of the world around them, to see and do things that they wouldn’t normally do, or go to places they wouldn’t normally go. Experience is a great teacher and can equip children with valuable skills that prepare for any challenges life may throw at them. What’s on the inside – someone’s character, drive, resilience, and the ability to stick to a goal – is just as important as their academic achievements.”

Matt Hyde, Chief Executive of the Scouts, said: “We know how much young people get out of enrichment activities like these: broadening their experiences, having fun and developing skills for life. Not everything can be taught in a classroom, so it’s great to see Department for Education recognising the value of extra-curricular activities and encouraging young people to build confidence, resilience and get involved in their communities as well.”

This seems like a great initiative – but once again it sees responsibility being loaded onto teachers – who have their SAT measures to worry about.  The primary age key stage 1 and key stage 2  SATs now focus on a newly narrowed prescribed curriculum to ensure consistency across the school network – IMO the law of unintended consequences means, that to maximise their SAT-performance, schools have now dropped most of the subjects  not on the curriculum – and this includes art, drama, dance and other creative subjects. Shame.  [NB: We are similarly expecting the “SAT focused schools” to solve the obesity crisis by exercising our kids. ]

I have always thought that besides measuring academic performance (- it is easy to build a league table of exam results)  we should also publish measures on wellbeing (physical and mental health) and even behaviour (including honesty, respect, politeness etc) – i.e. “what sort of kids are we producing in our schools?”  This would mean that schools would focus equally on academic performance, wellbeing and behaviour.  I am not alone. Sir Anthony Seldon, former Master of Wellington College has called for the Government to introduce a “wellbeing league table for schools”, in order to tackle the current mental health “crisis” in young people; and went onto say  that the Government was being “criminally negligent” in its failure to take wellbeing seriously. See here.

However, putting aside my worry that this is another issue being dumped on our “SAT focused schools”, this new initiative does at least show an emerging awareness of the need to build character and resilience in our young people. I hope that this new found belief is translated into more money for CAMHS.

One more thought, it turns out that “grit/staying power”, a key to success,  is developed though children engaging in extracurricular activities – yet there is a big division here between what rich and poor parents can afford (in terms of time and money) to allow their kids to do such activities;  maybe we could find some money to enable poorer children to engage in long-term extracurricular activities – like music, sports, dance, drama?