Can we have a better conversation with young people about mental health?

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My teenage children have taught me that the conversation I want to have about mental health, isn't the same one that they want. Much of my work and ministry has been related to emotional and mental health as a result, I probably talk about it a bit too much at home. Around here it's not uncommon to hear things like, "I'm not depressed dad". Or "I don't need a counselling session; I just need to get on with my homework."

I guess that I'm not unlike many parents today who worry that their children might be quietly swallowed up by what has been described in the press as a 'mental health epidemic' among our young people. NHS England recently reported that 1 in 5 young people aged 8-16 had a probable mental health disorder, part of a gradual increase on previous years. That's a big statistic for an anxious parent to absorb and so it's not surprising that it dictates the sort of discussions we are having with our teenagers.

Those common conversations are experienced by our children as being like subtle screening calls where the parent is anxiously probing for a notable cause for concern. It automatically puts them on edge, and they inevitably feel pressure to reassure the parent that nothing is wrong. Of course, every parent (and young person) needs to be aware and accepting of the fact that we can all be impacted by mental illness. If that's the case, getting professional medical support as quickly as possible is really important.

However, for 4 out of 5 young people that is not their current experience, and here is the challenge: we need these young people to be happy to talk about their mental wellbeing, and potentially build a bank of helpful strategies, whilst not being turned off from the mental health conversation. I believe that this can only be done if we turn down the intensity, reduce the 'clinical' language and make emotional wellbeing a part of our everyday conversation.

The fact is that most children, regardless of a diagnosis, are struggling emotionally in our troubled and pressuring world. The charity Mental Health Foundation recently polled that up to 60% of young people have felt unable to cope with the pressure to succeed (or to not fail). These are the conversations that our teenagers are wanting to have with us, so long as we don't let our own fears for them hijack the direction of travel.

It is also true that the tools a person develops to support their wellbeing can have a preventative effect when it comes to their mental health. As reported by Mayo Clinic in 2023, "Resilience also can help you deal with things that increase the risk of mental health conditions, such as being bullied or having trauma. If you have a mental health condition, being resilient can help you cope better."

Resilience is a way of describing how we navigate change and challenge. Bear Grylls - whom I co-wrote the book Mind Fuel for Young Explorers - Simple Ways to Build Mental Resilience with - describes it like a climbing rope. Good ropes should stretch by about 1/3 when you fall on them. That elasticity slows you down gently and safely. But if a rope hasn't been cared for or has been left under load for too long, it can lose its flex altogether and if that happens, when you fall you end up injured. Young people (and adults) need to be pro-active in developing their resilience, especially in a world that is so alive with threat and challenge.

Far from being a disconnected cerebral activity, resilience work can have immediate benefits on the lives of young people, helping them navigate the stress of school to managing strong emotions and dealing with anxious parents.

The New Testament is awash with amazing examples of resilience epitomised by Pauls teaching in Ephesians 4:12 "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength." Resilience work is a brilliant place to show relevant and practical scripture is today, it's a discipleship conversation that offers both practical and spiritual applications for young people. Giving them the words, the mentalities and the faith to keep going when life gets tough.