What is troubling this teenager?

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What is troubling this teenager? Drink? Drugs? Many of us think we know the health issues that young people worry about. But we may have to think again. Al Campbell looks at the outcomes of research showing what teens are really concerned about.

Most of us have a fair idea of what we think young adults should be worrying about. Alcohol, drugs, smoking – all the things that are bad for them and which we tend to put in the curriculum. However, have you ever wondered whether young people worry about the same things?

We put a general health survey on the Doctor Wellgood website and 216 responses later we feel we have enough data to share some initial findings. The research should be viewed as indicative, rather than conclusive.

Two thirds of the respondents were female, one third male. Half were aged 17 or 18, 17 per cent 14 to 16, and 33 per cent over 19. We also conducted informal one-to-one interviews to get a more in-depth view of what underlies the feelings and opinions of the teenagers.

Overall, we found that less than 25 per cent are worried about alcohol abuse, drug abuse or tobacco. They seem to feel in control of their lives in those areas. However, the things that were cited as key issues for more than half of our respondents were:

  • Feeling down: 54 per cent.

  • Stress: 59 per cent.

  • Weight and obesity: 64 per cent.

  • Low self-esteem: 65 per cent.

  • Self-image: 77 per cent.

Teaching works

Interestingly, it seems that the areas young people worry least about are those where they feel they have been best taught. 

Part of the survey asked them to rate the advice they received at school on a range of topics. More than 65 per cent said they had received “excellent or okay” teaching in areas covering sexual diseases and contraception, drugs, bullying and alcohol. The figure for weight and obesity was only 46 per cent, while mental health was a low 31 per cent. 

More worryingly, 25 per cent claimed they had never received any education with regard to weight and obesity and half said the same about mental health. A pattern is emerging. Unsurprisingly, where they have been taught well they are less worried.

Teachers are the last to know

Teachers are the least likely to be told about medical issues. Less than 10 per cent of the teenagers said they would be likely to discuss their health with a teacher. School nurses did better with 42 per cent prepared to share a problem with them.

Nothing of course compares to mum, who tops the poll with 88 per cent. Books and magazines are completely out of fashion as a reference resource, but two thirds would use the internet to garner information.

Depends on the problem

However, young adults are selective with regards to what issues they will share – and with whom. Less than a quarter would be likely to talk to parents about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), only 35 per cent would talk to them about drug abuse, and less than half about eating disorders, tobacco, or alcohol problems. 

However, more than 70 per cent would discuss weight and obesity or money worries. 

Furthermore, the clear fact is that, in general, friends provide far and away the biggest sounding board for more social and wellbeing issues (the two exceptions being STIs and eating disorders).

What about issues they would not share with somebody else? 

In all cases, at least 12 per cent of the teenagers had problems they would hide. In the cases of weight and obesity, eating disorders, bullying and depression this figure doubles to around 25 per cent. It sounds innocuous, but in effect in means one in four young people could be hiding their fears or problems about something.

Finance

Having money worries can be a major contributor to many of the high profile issues such as depression, self-esteem, feeling down and stress. With regard to school provision, 70 per cent of the cohort reported that they had received no or negligible teaching with regard to how to manage their financial needs or futures.

The one-on-ones

Upon deeper discussion with individuals during one-on-one sessions, it becomes apparent that while the nuances of four of the “high worry” areas – feeling down, weight, low self-esteem and self-image – are different, there is definite connectivity and inter-causality, which could link in to the fifth high worry area – stress.

Here follows some of our anecdotal findings and feedback from the one-to-one sessions.

Feeling down

Reading between the lines it seems “feeling down” may be caused as much by physical factors as any sort of mental health issue. This should not really come as a surprise. We are talking about a group of young people whose sleep patterns do not conform to what their bodies demand, who do not eat properly and are coming to terms with hormones.

Statistically, only around 20 per cent of them are getting enough exercise. That is before you factor in alcohol, or other substances. They are also under significant pressure to perform in an environment where success demands enormous levels of concentration.

Self-image & weight/obesity

With 77 per cent of young adults worrying about self-image it is quite difficult to set out to find one who is happy in this regard. In large part this is wrapped up with weight and body shape. This is well-documented territory, but the extent of the issue is something of a surprise.

Even more surprising is the fact that, talking one-to-one, it seems often to be those who are, how might we say this, “better favoured” by nature that have the most angst.

Perhaps the culprits are the media and peer group pressure – and the internet and proliferation of social media sites and YouTube make the pressure worse.

Self-esteem

Young people feel the ratio of criticism to approval is hugely weighted against them. They “can’t do anything right”. Teachers in particular are seen as rarely offering anything but negative input. Students are always being told they “could do better”. 

Young adults find this enervating. As one 20-year-old told us with the hindsight of now being at university: “If teachers counted how many times a day they put someone down, either in class or in handing out marks and reports, and compared that with how many times they praised somebody, they would be shocked.”

Stress

It seems most young people are stressed or worried at least some of the time. But it doesn’t seem to be an “under pressure” sort of stress (although that is certainly the case when they are expected to perform during examinations). Rather it seems to be an “I don’t feel in control of my life” sort of stress.

In quite simple terms it probably boils down to one issue – expectation management. They are not entirely sure what education/life/parents/mates/partners expect of them. They do not know how to manage those expectations. Engulfed by the internet and social media, where the goalposts of “cool” continually move, they are not quite sure what to expect of themselves.

In a world of so much choice they are struggling to work out what success looks like, measure themselves against it and get positive validation that their performance/weight/looks/financial status are on track.

To reduce the stress they need more management and help in managing themselves. Perhaps in a PSHE environment we should be prompting discussion, listening more, and helping young adults to manage how to work it out for themselves.

  • All Campbell is editor in chief of Doctor Wellgood, an online health and wellbeing resource for young adults. 

Further information
The Doctor Wellgood Health Survey is an ongoing tracking study that, over time, will continue to provide snapshots of what young adults think about their health and wellbeing worries. Your students can fill in the survey at www.doctorwellgood.com/survey.html

 


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