“I’m in grade 11, and this is the time we get our predictive grades; our predictive grades actively contribute to the university that we go to and the university we go to actively contributes to the job and pay we get. So, it kind of feels like our entire life and our entire livelihood is based on what we do this year,” says 16-year-old Pragya Gnanasekran, her words tumbling out in a rush as she speaks to Gulf News post an exam.
The pressure is intense – and it’s a two-pronged attack on the sensibilities of these teens; firstly, there’s parental expectations to contend with and secondly, there’s this self-imposed goal of brilliance to meet.
It’s no wonder that the rates of anxiety and depression in this age group are at their highest. According to estimates by the World Health Organisation, about 1.1 per cent of those aged between 10 and 14 and 2.8 per cent of all 15 to 19 year olds suffer from depression.
Some experts say that the current generation is the most likely to be stressed out in the short-term and burnt-out and facing mental health issues in the long-term. Mandeep Jassal, Behavioural Therapist, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, explains: “This so-called ‘go-getter generation’ is leading themselves towards burnout early on in their life. This can often be because of family expectations, one's own expectations, societal pressures - which are exacerbated via social media - to be performing and doing one's best be it academically, professionally, and even physically – particularly when it comes to appearance.” And of course, that worldwide variable: COVID-19 and its effects.
Living through a pandemic
Data show that mental health issues could crop up years after a traumatic event. According to a study quoted by US-based Child Mind Institute, after the Chernobyl disaster, rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder “…were two to four times higher among ‘Chernobyl-exposed’ subjects than the general population up to 11 years after the disaster.”
But perception of impact is what counts when it comes to such an effect. And information and conversation can help dispel the fear.
This so-called ‘go-getter generation’ is leading themselves towards burnout early on in their life. This can often be because of family expectations, one's own expectations, societal pressures - which are exacerbated via social media.
In the UAE, teenagers have found a novel way to overcome the distance imposed by COVID-19, by a clever use of tech. By using apps such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, they stay connected online, mimicking a classroom, cheering each other on and helping each other focus on the work. “My two friends are a great source of relief for me – they take the same subjects as me, so whenever we feel stressed, we talk to each other. I think seeing where your friends are in relation to you that serves as a huge stress reliever; you can motivate them and you feel like you are ahead of your peers so maybe it won’t be that bad,” says Gnanasekran.
Social media and peer pressure
Digital denizens are increasingly influenced by what they see online, the perfect smile, the great grades, the best jobs. And that pressure can be deafening. “The thing is …ever since I moved to Dubai, I feel like I need to have that picture-perfect life. I need to have an exceptional routine to show others. That’s the pressure I always felt – I must be a certain way to fit in,” says 16-year-old Ramla, who requested that her name be changed, recalling her low points in an interview with Gulf News.
“At one point, I was so low I cut myself,” she recalls, adding that unfortunately, some people still seem to believe that if you are self-harming, it’s because you are not trying hard enough.
Jassal says that while experts estimate that one in five adolescents from all walks of life will suffer from depression at some point during their teen years, most will never get help.
Comments that pierce
Anwesha Parida, another 16-year-old, found herself spiralling into the vortex of an eating disorder - anorexia nervosa - when she was just 13 years old. “My parents never taught me how to address my body when it was changing, but people always open conversations with ‘Oh, you’ve put on so much weight’, ‘You’ve become big’ or ‘You’ve become so thin’. Social media of course hasn’t helped. There’s just an ongoing feeling [with many teens] that their bodies are not right, and it’ll never be right,” she says.
People would make comments about my body, which might seem like a joke to others, but for me it severely affected my body image and my self-esteem.
17-year-old Swati Mulchandani echoes this sentiment, telling us about her brush with body shaming. “In 2020 I was diagnosed with a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome, which causes weight gain. I did gain a lot of weight and I was aware of it, and I was working on it. But as the lockdown got over and we started meeting people, I noticed how people treated me slightly differently. They would make comments about my body, which might seem like a joke to others, but for me it severely affected my body image and my self-esteem, because I couldn’t look in the mirror without feeling like I didn’t look good, that I looked ugly because of what they said.”
The importance of a good nap
The other element that can play havoc with a mood is a lack of sleep. And teenagers are chronically low on the stuff. US-based Nationwide Children's Hospital on its website explains that a teenager needs between nine and nine and a half hours of sleep in a day; they tend to get in less than seven. This may be because:
- Natural shift in sleep schedule. “After puberty, there is a biological shift in an adolescent’s internal clock of about two hours, meaning that a teenager who used to fall asleep at 9pm will now not be able to fall asleep until 11pm. It also means waking two hours later in the morning,” explains the site.
- Early high school start times.
- Social and school obligations.
But what does this have to do with moods? Quite a lot it turns out. Claudine Gillard, Sleep Consultant at Abu Dhabi- and Dubai-based Sweet Dreams Sleep Consulting, explains: “Sleep and mood are closely connected; poor or inadequate sleep can cause irritability and stress, while healthy sleep can enhance well-being. Research has proven those who were limited to only four and a half hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. When the subjects resumed normal sleep, they reported a dramatic improvement in mood. People who sleep less are also more likely to experience ‘repetitive negative thoughts'.”
Don't study or eat or use devices in the bedroom. If any of these things ‘must’ happen, stop a few hours before bedtime. Take a break from the room.
Have a regular sleep schedule.
Avoid napping in the afternoon as that will affect bedtime and overnight sleep amount.
Limit caffeine intake throughout the day and no caffeine after 4pm.
Ensure the big tasks are handled earlier in the day like homework and studying so the time leading up to bedtime is relaxing and not stressful or filled with tasks where you need to be alert.
Too much responsibility, too soon
San, a Malaysian expat teen based in the UAE who requested his name be changed, told Gulf News that there’s something to be said about the pressure the educational system exerts on a child. He says, “The education system, straight after GCSE [General Certificate of Secondary Education], when you are 16, you are forced into choosing you’re a level, which kind of dictates your future. There’s not a lot of flexibility, especially in the British curriculum. In International Baccalaureate, you only pick three to four subjects…you can’t pursue a broad range of choices. So, when you are 16, you already must narrow down your career choices. Sometimes your options are limited, so if you pick a wrong one, you are kind of stuck with it.
“For example, in year 11, I picked physics. Then in year 12 I started becoming interested in medicine, but I couldn’t go into it because I was already at the end of year 12 and I hadn’t taken A-level chemistry, so I had to forgo my chances in medicine.
“You shouldn’t really have to know what you want to become at the age of 16.”
Does this mean that the teen of today is more predisposed to being depressed than his or her predecessors?
Kirstan P. Lloyd, Clinical Psychologist at UAE-based Reverse Psychology, says: “Yes. And no.
“I feel that there is a lot more awareness and support for mental illness today than there was in previous generations. As such, it seems like adults (for instance, parents, teachers, doctors, etc.) are more sensitive to the mental well-being of teenagers and more likely to identify at risk children and provide support. I sometimes wonder how many teenagers in previous generations struggled profoundly, but because of a lack of knowledge or sensitivity, weren't appropriately diagnosed or supported.
“Today, teenagers themselves are also well informed. In my experience, teenagers today seem more able to identify that they are ‘depressed’ and verbalise this to those around them.”
I feel that there is a lot more awareness and support for mental illness today. I sometimes wonder how many teenagers in previous generations struggled profoundly, but because of a lack of knowledge or sensitivity, weren't appropriately diagnosed or supported.
Of course, she adds, there is another component to consider. She explains that among some teenagers, mental ill health is sometimes glamourised and possibly used as a means for them to have unconscious needs met. “There is also the risk for some teenagers to use a diagnosis or label as an identifier, or something that defines them as a person,” she adds.
That said, it’s important to listen to every cry of help. The prism of teenage-hood is tough. “However, we frame the world of teens, the reality is that they are facing enormous pressures and there is a narrative of ‘perfection’ that surrounds them (from the perfect body to the perfect grades, to getting accepted into the most sought-after courses). Paradoxically, perfection is unobtainable, so teens are often in a double bind where they can't always meet societal expectations yet feel shameful when they fail to achieve the impossible,” explains Lloyd.
What are some things you can do to help the mental health of kids?
Lloyd suggests the following:
Create a no judgement zone: It is important that we work on fostering a warm, loving relationship with our teens. A space where they feel connected, accepted and seen for who they are.
Model the behaviour you want to see: It is also important that we model healthy behaviour (for example, body positivity and healthy eating habits that offer an alternative to body shaming and diet culture that surrounds us) and encourage healthy behaviour in our teens.
Be sensitive: We need to be sensitive to the teen and their needs.
But be firm: Conversely, parents also need to provide healthy boundaries and limitations where appropriate.
Finally, parents must remember that children tend to soak up the vibe that’s at home. Child Mind Institute quotes a study undertaken in Italy over the COVID-19 lockdowns. “Researchers studying the effect of lockdowns on parents and children in Italy found that children’s emotional and behavioural challenges were significantly affected by how stressed their parents were, and how their parents responded to this stress,” it explains.
Connect and communicate, say the experts – but above all, stay calm when dealing with a teenager.
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