The ‘mental health crisis’ in young people: real or contrived?

'A yawning generation gap has appeared in British society.'

'A yawning generation gap has appeared in British society'

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Teachers, mainstream media, Department of Health policy documents, political conferences, the royal family: they’re all talking about a mental health crisis in younger people.

But is it real or contrived?

A yawning generation gap has appeared in British society. Whereas older folk are seen as stoical and reluctant to talk about mental health, the younger generation is tolerant to the point of celebrating psychological vulnerability.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have also given their support to the campaign for raising mental health awareness.

Emotional difficulties

But rather than a deficit, is there too much focus on emotional difficulties? And might this divert attention from patients with severe psychiatric disorder?

Certainly, adolescence is a challenging stage of life. The bridge from child to adult can be difficult to cross, as the young person strives for identity.

This is often when mental health problems emerge, such as eating disorders and self-harm. The prescription of anti-depressant medication has increased sharply in this age group. A recent report from the Millennium Cohort Study showed a quarter of girls aged 14 suffered from depressive symptoms.

'Young people spend much of their waking hours fixated on digital devices'

So what’s going on?

The internet is frequently blamed. Young people spend much of their waking hours fixated on digital devices, in constant contact with peers. It seems excessive, while sharing of ‘selfies’ suggests narcissism.

Yet such activity has become a social norm.

No persuasive link

My colleagues and I at King’s College London carried out a systematic review and found no persuasive link between social media use and depression in adolescence.

More sophisticated research is needed and, until we have a better understanding of the mental health frailties of younger people, we should be wary of sensationalised media messages.

The scientific attitude of doubt is needed more than ever.

Niall McCrae is a lecturer at Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifrey, King’s College London

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