MENTAL health problems are manifesting in children as young as 12-years-old in West Cork, some of whom are self-harming, talking about taking their lives, and looking on the internet to find ways to do it.
Those who work with young people, and those in adolescent mental health services, agree the issue of mental health problems among the under-18s is escalating.
But what they also agree is that this may be because this cohort are more willing to talk about their issues, that there’s a growing awareness of services available, and a slight breakdown in the stigma attached to such struggles.
Principal social worker with West Cork Social Work department, Greg Lawlor and his team work with young people where mental health is a big issue.
‘From my own experience, you get a sense it’s on the increase, but is that an increase due to more awareness of it or due to more young people out there struggling? We don’t know. That’s not to diminish the situation, but to get perspective and balance,’ he says.
‘We have moved though, from a culture where young people were “seen and not heard” and now young people are more able to speak about their experiences and we’re more likely to listen. The message is getting through that if you’re worried about a child or an issue, come talk to us.’
Greg, who is 20 years working in West Cork, and nine years in his current position, makes the important distinction between mental health and mental illness.
‘What you have now is a lot of young people struggling with their mental health. And if you find a person with a mental health problem, it’s likely to be complex. It’s very rarely one thing, but a combination of factors that’s involved.’
While Greg and his team work primarily with people in crisis, they also get referrals from schools and GPs, as well as cold-calls from parents and concerned members of the public.
Poor self-esteem, anxiety, social isolation and bullying are the more traditional problems that their under-18 clients struggle with, as well as issues relating to sexuality.
A relatively recent, and very concerning, referral related to a 12–year-old accessing websites that featured people who share stories of how they self-harmed, reveals Greg, who says parents need to understand what their children are accessing online.
‘We had another 12-year-old talking about self-harm; talking about hating their life, which was around self-esteem issues.’
A newer, and very serious problem emerging among the very early teens upwards, is the sharing online of nude or semi-nude images and the massive fall-out it causes, says Greg.
‘Maybe it’s a young girl who shares an image with a boyfriend who, for a variety of reasons shares it among school friends; which causes that young person all sorts of issues with self-esteem and image.
‘As a means of a child being exposed, the reach is quite significant. Suddenly an image can go around to half the school at the press of a button and that’s new – it’s a big issue.
‘What strikes me is schools are on top of it as much as they can be. They take it really seriously because potentially there’s a crime committed. But it’s about children not being educated and not understanding the power of the medium in that it can be used for good, but also have significant impacts. Sharing private images is a whole new phenomenon. Young people don’t realise that once the images are out there, they can’t get them back. It’s a big enough issue that we need to be doing more education programmes within the school around the uses of social media.’
Alcohol and drugs (mainly cannabis) also feature in their referrals in one of two ways – a young person living in circumstances where a parent or adult carer is using, or engaging directly themselves.
‘You do see a bit of a correlation in drugs and alcohol as a risk factor in increasing poor mental health. It is a chicken and egg situation, what comes first – is it a young person drinking because they feel low and that’s the only way they can socialise or the other way around? But there is a correlation there.
He also says that young people might think cannabis is benign, but if you are more prone to developing poor mental health, these drugs will exasperate it, so it’s about trying to get people to understand these are risk factors.
But on a positive note, Greg says lots of young people successfully work through their struggles.
‘Young people, no more than ourselves, can get to a stage where they feel life is hopeless and they’ve nothing to live for. It could be around any particular thing. But the reality is that for some of them, it’s a moment in time.’
It can be about getting perspective, but Greg acknowledges that with a breakdown in more traditional values and authority figures, that’s a message that can be difficult to get across.
‘Young people have more places they can go to get an opinion, including social media. It’s often difficult for parents to give perspective on things as they’re competing with so many other voices.
‘And some of those voices, like those on social media, are really scary, as they’re not designed to help – they’re dangerous. When there’s access to bad information, that’s a worry.’
He stresses the importance of young people being connected and well supported.
‘We have to keep checking-in and taking that risk of being seen as prying, because young people do want to talk. It’s just sometimes no one is listening or no one is asking the question “are you okay?” ’
In terms of solutions, he says: ‘When we think of mental health we think of mental illness, but it’s much more about the everyday.
‘It’s about making sure kids are involved in sports and activities and that they have friends. School can be a struggle for lots of them and social media is there whether we like it, or not so it’s about helping people manage that better; understanding the benefits and the risks. It’s better to put the resources in to build up the resilience of the child, the community and the family – because a child doesn’t live in isolation.
‘It’s time to move away from thinking that ‘mental health is nothing to do with me because I don’t know anyone like that,’ says Greg.
‘You know loads of people like that. Society generally has a responsibility to listen. It’s about the everyday struggles in life and if we could pay a little more attention to those, we might help people be more mentally well and less prone to mental illness.’
• To contact the HSE’s Children and Family Services in West Cork call 028 40400. They are based at Skibbereen Community Hospital, Coolnagarrane in Skibbereen. See also the HSE website (Google Child and Family Services West Cork).