It’s time to really talk about mental health

I check my watch. It’s 11pm but I feel like I’ve been here for hours. This is no VIP lounge in a top London club. Instead, I’m sitting with my friend Aisha in a toilet cubical.

I check my watch. It’s 11pm but I feel like I’ve been here for hours. This is no VIP lounge in a top London club. Instead, I’m sitting with my friend Aisha in a toilet cubical. The night started benignly enough—a few shots of cheap Russian vodka and a long cab ride. But a teenage house party in Pinner isn’t designed to deal with a drunken Prozac popper.

So while others flit and flirt, Aisha makes a beeline for the carving knife. I wrest it off her, with the help of a more brawny friend. She flees to the toilet and trades the knife for a bottle of bleach that she brandises in one hand in a mock toast. How can I abandon this sobbing, intoxicated mess to catch the last tube home?

But my inability to cope with Aisha is understandable. Teenagers have no training in recognising and dealing with their own mental health problems, let alone those of others. And given that 10 per cent of children suffer from mental illness at any given time, this lack of education is frightening.

What is the root of the problem?

This means that in my school year group of 300 at least thirty will have a diagnosable mental condition. A minority of them will seek help or be aware of what’s available. And their friends, who have to witness the distress, are equally ill equipped to offer practical support.

After hearing the shocking stats, it’s tempting to play the blame game. Is it the parents’ fault that their child’s cries for help are falling on deaf ears? Surely parents mostly try their best. Anyway, which teenager actually listens to their parent’s advice? Second candidate scapegoat is the school. At my school, there’s a counselling service available but the shady counsellor who patrols the space outside her room deters all callers.

Generation Z has the highest ever recorded rate of mental illness in the under 18’s. “When I started work as a GP twenty years ago, I hardly ever saw a young person with depression, let alone self harm. Eating disorders were rare. But now I am horrified by the extent of mental distress and how young it starts,” says Ann Robinson, a London GP.

The government backed initiative, Young Minds, is one of several well intentioned programmes trying to tackle the problem, but I have my own 3 point plan to propose.

Helping to understand

Point one is education to help young people recognise that they have a problem before it gets out of hand. Mental illness can be hard to recognise. If you watch two teenage girls prancing round Topshop, you can’t tell which of the two is battling against dark thoughts.

Rosa attempted suicide three times before she received adequate attention from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS).  “I had begun to see people when there was in fact no one there, but I was scared that these ‘people’ would hurt me and I truly believed that they would. It took so long for CAMHS to begin to genuinely help me. At this point, in my eyes, there was no longer any goodness left in the world.”

Point two is abolishing the stigma. Teenagers who self-harm should be able to expose their scars without fear of bullying or victimisation.

It can be hard to know how to react to a limb mutilated with a razor blade, whether it’s fresh that morning or wounds of a hard past. Aisha says that being asked about her cuts and burns makes her feel awkward. “I feel I have to either lie or tell the whole truth. And telling the whole truth is uncomfortable for everyone,” she says.

And what is the correct etiquette when dealing with people with eating disorders. Do you confront them as they stare angrily at their salad, simply stabbing it not consuming it?  Could this approach cause more alienation in someone who already feels very alone?

The third, and possibly most important point is teaching teenagers how to help a friend in need. Clichéd as it sounds, it could save a life. Sometimes a smile in the corridor is all it takes.

But kindness may not be enough; a structured scheme delivered by schools is essential. It’s time to talk about mental health before it’s too late.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.