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Dublin: 5 °C Sunday 21 September, 2014

Column: One good adult is crucial for young people. I can vouch for that.

A new survey shines a light on the challenges facing young people like me – and shows we need good adults, writes Tim Smyth.

Tim Smyth

IN DOUGLAS ADAMS’ Dirk Gently detective series, the titular character sets himself apart from other fictional sleuths by trying to solve the society rather than the crime.  That’s because for Dirk Gently everything’s connected in modern society.  All the pieces matter.

Headstrong’s MyWorld Survey is a bit like that.  It lays out the full range of concerns of young people living through this turbulent time in Ireland and makes clear links between these issues and our mental health.

I’m a youth advisor with Headstrong and, at age 23, I’m also within the 12 to 25 age group which was studied by the Headstrong researchers for MyWorld. I feel, as a young adult and as a person working with others my own age and younger, that from the pressures to the protective factors explored, MyWorld Survey is a true reflection of the voice of people like me and my friends.

By listening to and documenting the concerns of such a broad group, and then by setting these concerns on a rigorous research footing, I feel they have ensured that we can’t run away from the need to address the mental health of people like me and my peers.

MyWorld also gives us a manual on how to go about helping adolescents and young adults make the transition to adulthood.  Perhaps one of the most interesting findings from the survey was that “one good adult” is important to the mental well being and confidence of all young people, from the time they start secondary school to the time they are looking for their first job.

When I read this finding first I immediately thought about all the teachers in the CBS Kilkenny who helped me get where I am today, from encouraging my writing and public speaking to making sure I put down the guitar for long enough to get some work done.

Like me, over 70 per cent of young people surveyed reported that they had received significant support from an adult figure in their lives – be it a standout teacher, football coach, or a parent.  The My World findings confirmed that one good adult is crucial for our development. I can vouch for that.

‘The generation gap isn’t really a reality’

From Generation Dole to Generation Emigration to all ‘teens out of control’, it can seem as though young people get a lot of stick from the ‘grown-ups’.  It’s often put down to the “generation gap”. In fact, the My World Survey shows that the “generation gap” isn’t really a reality – at least not for young people.

Instead, it confirms that one of the most valuable resources our country can provide to young people is an adult population which understands its important value to us. For me, all those good adults and all these statistics, they’re proof that we can reach across the generation gap and develop existing bonds to a whole other level – whether that’s helping to clear a path through serious distress, easing a way through difficulties which may be ‘ordinary’ even if they don’t feel ordinary, or insulating young people from trouble and actively helping them to flourish.

The survey tells us that talking helps, too.  High percentages of those surveyed report turning to friends or parents for support.  But 10 per cent of teenagers and 20 per cent of young adults aren’t seeking out this support, even when the feel they need it.  So it’s clear that we need to create a safe space where any and all issues are up for discussion.  If a problem is big enough to report, then it must be big enough to give that young person support.  We need to work to create a space where anything is up for discussion.

That’s what we’re doing at Headstrong’s Jigsaw projects. We aim to provide a safe space which is appropriate to whatever level of distress a young person may be experiencing.  I like to think of Jigsaw as the Spar of youth mental health: it’s what you need, when you need it.  It’s a paradigm worth carrying over into every community in Ireland.

‘Alcohol abuse is a problem for my generation’

There is no health without mental health, and the negative impact of neglecting this crucial fact does not simply store up long-term problems.  The effect is immediate.  I believe strongly that youth mental health must be a national priority.  Even if cost were an issue, it’s in our interest to support vulnerable and vibrant people, which can sum up a fair proportion of our young population. The cost of ignoring the demand is a high one.  Those who do not seek help or receive support from a trusted adult are more likely to fall into situations of serious distress.  Suicide and self-harm are real risks for significant proportions of those surveyed.

We also know that alcohol abuse is a problem for my generation – our unhealthy relationship with drink has been well documented. However, My World is the first survey to track the impact of alcohol on mental health in a way that sensationalising the facts simply cannot.  It’s not just about how many drinks or how often we drink.  It’s about the bigger picture.  It’s about the reasons why we choose to live the way we do.  It’s about the distress, impaired concentration and depression that alcohol abuse inflicts on young people, at this time, not down the line.

We’re all very good at talking about crisis in this country.  I’ve heard the Irish response to social problems as ‘fight, flight or fundraise’.  But what we need to do is get in there before it gets to crisis.  The MyWorld findings call on everyone to respond to the needs expressed by young people and the means by which we address these needs.

MyWorld has given Ireland’s young people a voice.  Now it’s over to everyone to start listening. As Dirk Gently, Douglas Adam’s fictional sleuth reminds us, all the pieces matter.

Tim Smyth is a youth ambassador with Headstrong. The My World Survey was a collaboration between Headstrong and University College Dublin. Headstrong is committed to changing how Ireland thinks about young people’s mental health through the Jigsaw programme of service development, research and advocacy.

Read: 1 in 3 young people have experienced mental health problems>

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