Talk openly about mental health

I am an educator and a parent of two teenagers. I am concerned about many youth at my school who are sharing their struggles with feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts with me. Yet they feel ashamed of talking about this. What can we do to help these young people?

What it “feels like” to be a person is not an insignificant thing. Feelings have causal effects, no matter how awkward this may be for our physicalist-materialist world-view. (Just think of a person who feels his life is worthless and feels suicidal, because he finds life emotionally unbearable.)

The sense of me-in-the-world, our subjectivity, is also possessed of general features; the life of my mind is not completely different to yours, it must be governed by some laws. It is the task of psychology to discover these laws.

This has been so simply and clearly stated by Professor Mark Solms from UCT, who is a specialist in neuropsychology and neuropsychoanalysis. So we can connect through and in spite of our differences knowing that at the core of our being-human-in-the-world, we feel and need the same basic things, including food, safety, attachment or love, a sense of belonging and a place we can call “our home”.

Yet sadly and in many cases, many developing children do not have these basic human needs met, and the journey of life becomes less enjoyable and more emotionally perilous for many.

Statistics on mental health problems of young people at schools have been increasing globally. Research indicates that there has been a rapid rise in the reported cases of students struggling with anxiety, depression, loneliness, bullying of all kinds as well as suicidal ideations and behaviour, including self harm.

In Britain, for example, child and teenage mental health has been in the spotlight more than ever: Prime Minister, Theresa May, has made a major speech on the subject, promising long overdue support for the beleaguered CAMHS ( the NHS’ Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services), and younger members of the royal family have reiterated their commitment to raising its profile. Prince Harry spoke out recently about mental health problems in his family, on behalf of the “Heads Together” charity he spearheads with his brother and sister-in-law, saying it showed “strength” to talk about mental health problems, and indeed it does.

In South Africa there have been several cases recently of celebrities and academics who have struggled with depression and committed suicide. The link between suicide and severe depression is well documented. We are feeling beings and not only thinking beings – our feelings contribute significantly and is the essence of our being-in-the-world.

We make choices based predominantly on our feelings, which happens mostly unconsciously (reportedly 95%). So to undermine feelings and see it as a hindrance only to be hidden or shut away, is counterproductive because it leads to a sense of going through the world numb and alienated from ourselves and others.

We are all overdetermined beings, which means that there are so many interwoven contributing factors and layers to the way we feel and behave. It is not just one thing that causes us to feel upset, depressed or anxious.

Often there are many contributing factors, with continuous emotional problems eventually causing the person to doubt their capacity to navigate their lives with self-agency and self-confidence.

This can include emotional neglect and abuse in childhood; feeling unsupported or rejected by family and friends; losing someone we love; stressful life events that seem insurmountable; having failed at something that you had set out to achieve and the list can go on.

What can parents do to help their children?

In addition, throughout our developmental trajectory there is an intrinsic need to be “My-Self”, starting from around 2 years of age and slowly needing to individuate and separate from our caregivers (while still needing to feel and know that they still love and support us as we pull away), all this being integral in psychologically preparing us for our own separate being-in-the-world, i.e. becoming more one’s own person, separate from others, yet still accepted by them as we are.

This can create ongoing inner and outer conflict to both child and parent.

These times are often very demanding for parents and youth, especially in the modern world, with much more potential negative influences on their children through social media, drugs and alcohol abuse.

Striking the balance between letting go and holding on is a conflict for each parent with their child feeling an instinctive forward-moving urge to enter the world and move further away from their family of origin.

A child who has been allowed to develop in this way, including expressing their individual thoughts, feelings and wishes (talking about these and not necessarily always acting on them), with caregivers as guides, helps in preparing the child for being in the world with a sense of greater self-confidence, self-expression and self-assuredness.

If we as parents impose only what we want for our children, forcing them to become a carbon copy of ourselves, and not encouraging their individuality to develop, we create a child who does not learn to trust in who they are and what they feel and know inwardly.

Finding ways to have thoughtful open dialogues with your children from a young age, which are age-appropriate and focused on their inner world, helps them to feel connected, develop a more true sense of who they are, what they feel and who they want to become.

What can schools do to help?

The most important thing schools can do is to create a whole school approach, with the intent of de-stigmatisation of mental health issues. It is strongly recommended that this be an ongoing mental health campaign and not a once-off event only when problems arise. The stigma attached to mental health is, sadly, still very much a deterrent for those suffering from various emotional issues such as anxiety and depression to seek help.

Talking openly about mental health and creating platforms where people can do this in a general way, is one way of alleviating feeling alone in your suffering.

When mental health is perceived as something to be avoided, or indicating weakness, it becomes really difficult to be able to tell others that you are struggling with emotions, yet we all experience this and need support and guidance to navigate our feelings. In most cases, individuals who are helped develop inner capacities including resilience for later challenges in life.

To experience ongoing external and internal struggles and suffering is part of the human condition. However, it’s not all doom and gloom, life is indeed precious and beautiful but it is also conflict-ridden. When we are armed from a young age to navigate our internal worlds, dealing with life and all its vicissitudes becomes less perilous and more enjoyable.

This input and advice should not be viewed as a replacement for getting professional help should an individual require it.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.