It is mental health awareness week. With recent announcements of funding to support schools and improve NHS waiting times it might appear that policymakers are at last recognising both the prevalence and the importance of tackling poor mental health.
Meanwhile we need to put efforts into combatting the root causes of poor mental health, not only treating the consequences, although obviously that’s really crucial too.
A recent BBC online survey of 1027 teenagers aged 13-19 reported that 69% stated that they were unhappy with their weight and 44% said they would consider surgery to change their looks. Research shows that those with negative body image are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and suicidal than those without intense dissatisfaction in their appearance.
This is of increasing concern as young people are bombarded with media messaging and marketing techniques that give them hugely unrealistic body images.
According to studies eating disorders are also on the rise amongst men, with some estimates suggesting that men now account for one in four cases. Few interventions specifically target boys and young men too.
In 2010 an inquiry into body image was undertaken by an All Party Parliamentary Group. Key recommendations included ‘the establishment of a national network and platform to share programmes and resources that help reduce body dissatisfaction and promote healthy body image’. Yet little progress has been made on developing national plan.
The Mental Health Foundation defines positive mental health as ‘ensuring children and young people develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults’.
Equipping young people with the skills, knowledge and resources to understand themselves helps them develop resilience. Youth workers are trained in these techniques and can provide the support for young people to grow and mature. As they feel more confident in who they are, young people also feel empowered to challenge the idealised body images they see around them, and make better informed decisions for themselves.
Youth workers have a key role to play in building resilience and supporting young people to develop their understanding of themselves and the world around them.
Yet there is a serious barrier to youth workers’ role in developing young people’s resilience. Open access youth provision is increasingly scarce. Cuts to public services have hit youth provision very hard, and where it remains it is concentrated on just the most at-risk young people.
We are missing opportunities to prepare our young people for the rigours and demands of society. More will slip through the net and only be identified when their situation becomes critical. Prevention is better than cure.