The blight on the conscience of the world: Why are so many youth and students killing and harming themselves?
- Kamran Mofid
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“A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.”
I have been reading these disturbing reports with great sadness:
“One in 12 UK teenagers self-harms and one in 10 is clinically depressed. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of girls aged between 10 and 14 admitted to hospital for self-harming in England increased by 93%. The statistics support my own observations, as a clinical psychologist treating young people for mental health conditions, that this is a problem on the increase. When I look at the world through their eyes, I see levels of competition and performance anxiety unknown to my generation. Outside school, our body-obsessed, share everything culture subjects them to new forms of scrutiny. Who’s got the most “followers”? Whose selfie or video got the most likes? Body-shaming, cyberbullying and sexting can happen to them on their mobiles wherever they might be, robbing them of a place of safety.”…
“Today’s young people should be the healthiest generation ever, because of better healthcare, nutrition, education and smaller families. But troubling issues have emerged, which many societies are not helping them address.
“Global trends include those promoting unhealthy lifestyles and commodities, the crisis of youth unemployment, less family stability, environmental degradation, armed conflict and mass migration, all of which pose major threats to adolescent health and wellbeing”.
Young people are having to deal with these issues at a time when their brains are going through a developmental surge second only to infancy in terms of the changes occurring within neural systems, says the commission, comprising academics and other experts.
Adolescents seek social engagement and interaction with their peers and they have a heightened response to emotion. The “quality, security and stability of social contexts in which younger adolescents are growing up” is important in enabling them to develop skills to deal with what they are seeing and hearing.”…
“The crisis in children’s mental health is far worse than most people suspect and we are in danger of “medicalising childhood” by focussing on symptoms rather than causes, the government’s mental health champion for schools has warned.
Natasha Devon, who has been working in schools for almost a decade delivering mental health and wellbeing classes, said an average of three children in a class were diagnosed with a mental illness, but many more slipped under the radar.
“The question we should be asking ourselves is what are the emotional and mental health needs of all children and are they being met in our schools?”
“Time and time again over recent years young people – and the people who teach them – have spoken out about how a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health.
“At one end of the scale we’ve got four-year-olds being tested, at the other end of the scale we’ve got teenagers leaving school and facing the prospect of leaving university with record amounts of debt. Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence.”
Devon condemned those who said the younger generation needed to toughen up to deal with the stress of life, and misused words such as ‘character’, ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’, as it implied having a mental illness “is somehow a defect of the individual.”…
Those stark figures are included in a report from the university's student mental ill-health task group.
Between 1 January and 8 February 2016, there were 12 emergency call-outs for self-harm or suicide attempts, 50% of the total.
In the previous full calendar year, there were 134 such call-outs to the university, with suicide attempts or self-harm accounting for 32%.
In 2014, there were 158 ambulance call-outs, with 14% because of self-harm or suicide attempts.
There have been warnings of an increase in demand for counselling and claims that universities are not taking their pastoral responsibilities seriously enough
The report refers to figures for the University of York, but it also includes evidence from more than 50 universities.
The report says students can suffer from a misguided sense of "perfectionism", feeling under pressure to succeed at everything and responding with feelings of "low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and hopelessness" when things go wrong.
Social media is another significant cause of problems, with students having to respond to an ever-present "virtual environment", which can include cyberbullying and victimisation.
And there are problems related to young people being away from home for the first time, relationship worries and anxiety over money.”…
“September 1st is when the majority of Japanese children return to school after the summer holidays. Last year, for the first time, the most common cause of death of those aged 10 to 19 in Japan was suicide.
A government study has linked the spike in suicide figures with the fact it is the day when the majority of Japanese pupils return to school after their summer holidays. A total of 101 under-18s in Japan have killed themselves on this day since 1972.The report investigated over 18,000 child suicides from 1972 to 2013. The fourth worst day for child suicides is the following day on September 2nd and the fifth, August 31st – one day before school re-opens. Throughout the summer months, the amount of deaths was significantly lower.
Previous government studies have signalled that among high school students (ages 15 to 18), academic problems and worrying about future careers contributed to suicidal tendencies, as did depression and anxiety.”…
The blight on the conscious of the world: Why so many youth and students are killing and harming themselves?
It must be noted that the rise in youth and students’ mental health crises is global and thus, should be addressed globally by all the stakeholders.
The pertinent question is: How might we proceed to approach this tragic issue?
On 12 January 2011, based on my many decades of personal and professional experience and journey, which has involved many years of close contact, engagement and dialogue with large numbers of youth and students globally, I suggested the following as a possible path:
Lessons in Life: Why Teaching Happiness Matters
“Helping to produce happy and contended students, ready to face the real world when they graduate, should be the highest priority of any committed academic and university. I have been saying this for the last many years and more, but only in the past couple of years have I begun to realise this isn't just an airy-fairy aspiration, but one can in fact learn happiness in classes. Indeed, happiness is understandable, obtainable, teachable, and there are already courses in Happiness and Well-being at a few universities including Harvard, Cambridge, the “Well-being Institute” and Oslo, the “Happiness Project”. Now I have realised what might be done. I recognised the duty to do something about it at Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative. My main aim is to create further interest in this subject and to inspire other universities to follow the examples of Harvard, Cambridge and Oslo, amongst others.
I believe that our education in universities is fundamentally ill-balanced. Of course exams matter greatly - they are the passport to an individual's future work and career. A university which fails to let every student achieve the best grades and results of which their students are capable is failing to do its job properly. But education is far more than this. It is far more than grades and percentages here and there.
As a university lecturer with many years of experience, I have seen far too many tortured and unhappy students who have achieved very high grades. If they can achieve these grades while leading balanced lives, taking part in a wide variety of activities which will develop different facets of their character, and if they blossom as happy and contented human beings, then all is well and good. But as any teacher will know, this isn't always the case with high achievers. Neither is it with high achievers in life. These driven people see their lives flash by in fast living and fast cars, and most fail to realise they are missing the point of life. Is it more important to be highly “successful”, or to be a respected colleague and a valued friend, and a loving parent whose children grow up in a secure environment in which they know they are valued and treasured? I have had to learn the hard way myself; the answers are obvious. Hence the need to teach happiness while at schools and universities.
Universities should seriously consider developing courses and modules which are about emotional learning and emotional intelligence, which by definition are far more reflective activities than traditional classes. Students should learn about how to form healthy and sustaining relationships. They should gain understanding about the goals they should want to set in life, which should be realistic and appropriate for their own talents and interests. The negative emotions which are an inevitable part of life should be explored: students should be able to learn more about what it is that causes them pain and unhappiness, how they might be able to avoid or minimise these emotions and how to deal with them when they do occur. So the essence is that students learn more about themselves, which will be information that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives.
Today university students lead very destructively competitive lives, which are all about the highest grades, finding the best jobs, the ones that give them more, the best position, highest bonuses, etc. It is all about the best, the most, the highest, and all measured in monetary terms. This is for all practical reasons a rat race. Here we can, if we ever needed to, see why we need courses in happiness and well-being, inner peace and contentment. A pertinent question at this time is: “How can we dampen the impact of the rat race?” We have to start from human nature as it is, but we can also affect values and behaviour through the signals our institutions send out. An explicit focus on happiness would change attitudes to many aspects of policy, including in education and training, regional policy and performance-related pay, the dreaded and destructive bonus-inspired culture that has made money the main measurement of success and happiness.
The goal should be to help our students lead happier lives, not in the sense of experiencing pleasure - of moving from one immediate gratification to the next - but in the sense of leading a meaningful and fulfilling life, of flourishing emotionally, spiritually and intellectually.
Education can be informative or transformative. Information may “educate” the students, but to transform, in contrast, is all about changing the way students perceive the world and interpret the “information” that they receive in their lectures. Today our universities by-and-large are all about the information and not much about transformation. This must change. To help students lead fulfilling lives, information is necessary, but not sufficient.
These courses should remind the students that “Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness, therefore, is not about making it to the peak of the mountain, nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain: happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.” They should be encouraged to discover the beauty and the wisdom of happiness, self-esteem, empathy, sympathy, friendship, humility, love, kindness, generosity, tolerance, service, altruism, creativity, nature, music, literature, poetry, spirituality, and humour.
What is the purpose of university if not to prepare its graduates for a life beyond? It is not only at university that personal difficulties arise. Most of us have had to cope in our lives with professional rejections, breakdowns of relationships, bereavements and periods of depression. These are all part of life. I wish our universities could communicate more effectively with the students that money, fame and worldly success do not necessarily lead to happy and fulfilled lives.
I would like to see all universities within the next few years begin to teach courses on happiness and what it means to be happy. I do believe that by taking the subject seriously, universities will not only be doing a much better job morally for their students, but they will also help produce young men and women who will help to build a far better society than their parents did. This is a real challenge and it is one to which I believe all universities should rise.”…
Then, on 10 February 2015 in an article I pleaded with the world to come together and to address the global youth depression:
A Plea to address Global Youth Depression
“Studies after studies are demonstrating that the number of young adults, youth and students, who are struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and psychosis all across the world, is rising. The problem is most acute at university and college campuses world-wide and has become a global mental health crisis. The age at which many mental disorders manifest themselves is between 18 and 24, which coincides directly with the average age of student enrolment in higher education. Moreover, it is also noted that psychological disorders, for which students are being treated while studying in higher education, are increasing in severity. Adolescent suicide rates have tripled over the past 60 years, making suicide the second leading cause of death for that age group.
It should also be noted that depression and anxiety disorder are not confined to our higher education institutes. Today's schoolchildren too are at a higher risk of depression than any previous generation. As many as 9% of children will experience a major depressive episode by the time they are 14 years old, and 20% will experience a major depressive episode before graduating from high school. Having suffered from depression as children, these young people are much more vulnerable to depression as adults.
Mental health is the side of university life that stays behind closed doors. It's increasingly common though. Last year it was announced that the number of university students seeking counselling rose by 33%. In a report by the National Union of Students, 20% of students consider themselves to have a mental health problem.
The above issues are furthermore confirmed by a latest survey conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute. The survey of more than 150,000 students nationwide, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014,” found that a large number of students were suffering from depression, whilst many more “felt overwhelmed” by schoolwork and other commitments.
“It’s a public health issue,” said Dr. Anthony L. Rostain, a psychiatrist and co-chairman of a University of Pennsylvania task force on students’ emotional health. “We’re expecting more of students: There’s a sense of having to compete in a global economy, and they think they have to be on top of their game all the time. It’s no wonder they feel overwhelmed.”
“You have to get good grades, have all sorts of after-school activities that take up tons of hours, and you have to be happy and social — you have to be everything,” according to another observer.
As a former university lecturer with many years of experience, I have seen far too many tortured-minds and unhappy students. These driven people see their lives flash by in fast living and fast cars, and most fail to realise they are missing the point of life. To combat this debilitating illness, I suggest that universities should seriously consider developing courses and modules which are about emotional learning and emotional intelligence, which by definition are far more reflective activities than traditional classes. Students should learn about how to form healthy and sustaining relationships. They should gain understanding about the goals they should want to set in life, which should be realistic and appropriate for their own talents and interests. The negative emotions which are an inevitable part of life should be explored: students should be able to learn more about what it is that causes them pain and unhappiness, how they might be able to avoid or minimise these emotions and how to deal with them when they do occur. So the essence is that students learn more about themselves, which will be information that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives.”…
And then finally, I wrote an Open Letter to university leaders, inviting them to make students’ mental and emotional wellbeing their top priority:
"This Open Letter is dedicated to the youth of the world, our children and grandchildren, who are the unfolding story of the decades ahead. May they rise to the challenge of leading our troubled world, with hope and wisdom in the interest of the common good to a better future.’
Today I have the grim task of sounding an alarm about the spread of an illness that is rapidly becoming the pandemic disease of the 21st century:
an epidemic of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide amongst the children, the youth and students world-wide. This tragedy is global and needs a global solution.
Dear University Leaders,
Mental health on university campuses is an urgent, national and global crisis. According to many different and diverse research and reports, very large numbers of students have felt “so depressed they were unable to function” at some point during their university time and many more felt “overwhelmed with anxiety, fear and depression”.
Overall, the need is dire: a silent majority of students feel isolated, stressed and depressed, whilst many mask their loneliness and problems and suffer in silence, given the stigma attached to “mental” illness.
As noted in these reports, in the past few years many students have died by suicide. Unfortunately, many universities have not taken decisive actions to make sure this doesn’t happen to current and future students. We need to prioritise mental wellness. We owe this to our human decency and sense of compassion. Our students are our children and grandchildren, not our customers and clients, bringing funds to our institutions.”…
Here you have it. Let us rise to this global challenge. Let us come together for the common good, suggesting possible solutions, enabling our children and grand children to lead a more fulfilling and happier life.
The opportunity is upon us. Let’s size it. Carpe Diem!