We need to teach our children how to be resilient

IRELAND’S first study into college students’ mental health has revealed some very worrying trends. The study, carried out by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), has elucidated some figures that should serve as a serious warning to teachers, parents and policy makers. Our students, the study shows, are struggling with serious mental health conditions as they try to navigate third level education.

The USI, funded by the HSE, surveyed 3,340 students and found a serious emerging issue in our college system. Some 38.4% of students were found to be dealing with severe anxietal issues, while 29.9% were coping with depression. It is staggering when you think that secondary schools have never been more cognisant of mental health awareness.

But what does that really mean? And how do schools go about equipping their students with the tools they will need as they move into adult life?

I have noticed, with this drive for mental health promotion, it really doesn’t get into the issue or teach students how to manage their anxiety, depression, or stress. It merely tells them that ‘it is OK, not to be OK’. And, of course, that is an important message, but we also and more importantly need to teach them how to mange not feeling OK, because that builds resilience and that’s what seems to be missing, the ability to manage stress when it arrives.

Stress occurs when what is being asked of you exceeds your resilience, and that is why students are becoming overwhelmed — they don’t have the tools to regulate or manage themselves. And then, of course, the question we must ask ourselves as parents, teachers, and clinicians is why are these students unable to meet those pressures like previous generations?

Resilient people are not immune to stress, but they can manage it when it comes into their life. That is the fundamental difference between a student that is overwhelmed and one that is managing their life. It seems to me that we have the perfect storm when it comes to mental health issues in this country. And it is something that we must look at because it is seriously impacting the wellbeing of our children; research shows that the number of students on heavy psychotropic drugs has quadrupled in the last five years. Alarm bells should be ringing. And why is it we are so quick to throw medication at this issue?

Resilience is about being able to adapt well in the face of adversity. So we have to look at ourselves, as parents, and ask, am I teaching my child how to cope with adversity? Or do I try to remove it from them altogether when it arrives? This is not about blame but about waking up to the fact that our children are being medicated instead of being taught.

I see it in my clinic nearly every week, a young adult with their whole life ahead of them consumed by a simple setback. They are utterly unable to bounce back from a failure; there is no grit in their character. And this lack of grit is becoming pathologised, almost like they are deficient somehow and need medicine to right the balance. We are moving towards a dystopian nightmare of heavily medicated children going about their everyday routine like zombies. And the perfect storm I’m referring to is lack of resilience due to overprotective parenting, mental health saturation in the school system, and pharmacological response to parenting issue. Of course some children will need medication but in my clinical experience, they are in the vast minority. The quadrupling of children on heavy medication doesn’t speak to an epidemic but a shift in how we are viewing the issue and how we are treating it. This is what needs to be addressed. Our children need us to protect them from corporations and bad policies.

I had a 15-year-old client recently tell me she came to me because her psychiatrist refused to treat her if she didn’t take her medication. She didn’t feel depressed, and didn’t feel that a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) was the right choice for her. But she admitted she had a low mood due to her parents’ separation. Could it be that parents, in their desire to make their children happy, are actually creating the situation for their children whereby they will never be able to experience joy or happiness?

What I mean by this is that parents of my generation who received little in the way of having feelings validated are now trying to rectify that by overly validating every feeling or giving in to every whim of their child. Of course the end of austere parenting is a good thing, but what we have replaced it with is more detrimental to the wellbeing of our children’s mental health, and that’s what these figures reveal. As parents, we must teach our children how to cope with adversity. Schools must employ qualified professionals to give talks on how students can develop skills to deal with the challenges of life, and not leave it to teachers that might have a vague interest and understanding on this complicated issue.

We owe it to our children to protect them so that in five years’ time when they carry out the next survey, the figures will be remarkably more positive.

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