In 2018, the Times described today’s students as the “Snowflake Generation,” referring to millennial’s apparent hyper-sensitivity to both personal and social-political issues. Millennials are often portrayed as ‘moaners’ complaining about the harshness of being young in today’s turbulent world. But the truth is that recent reports speak loudly about the mental health crisis students are going through. In the UK alone, two in five students struggle with anxiety, many drop out from their courses (26,000 students in England who were studying for their first degree in 2015 did not finish their courses), and the alarming rate of suicide among students seems to be increasing. According to a report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) conducted in England and Wales, there is one death every four days. In Oregon, US, a new bill allows students to take ‘mental health’ days off from school. In the UK, while the NHS and university-based counsellors have been struggling to keep up with the demands coming from students in need of mental health support, tech-based projects such as Fika are working on preventing—rather than solving—this tragic epidemic, with the help of what is called ‘emotional fitness’.
After his best friend committed suicide, Nick Bennett realised how crucial emotional education is, and co-founded Fika, an education technology company and app that offers university students the tools and the coping mechanisms they need to prevent mental health-related symptoms. Fika provides five-minute emotional workouts designed to build students’ resilience, confidence, and empathy, as well as encouraging social inclusion at universities. “We really believe in the potential of combining science with technology to create a scalable, self-sustainable solution for student wellbeing. What makes Fika exciting is that it’s about prevention, rather than cure. Both are important parts of the answer, but rather than parking the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, we think students should be proactively building emotional muscle every day, from the day they arrive at university,” Nick Bennett told Screen Shot.
But while it seems crucial to provide students with emotional structures, how can universities and similar institutions improve the system that is partially responsible for the mental health crisis among young people? So far, Fika has partnered with several universities across the country, including the University of Exeter and London Business School, and in November it will be hosting its first Fika think tank, ‘Building a Brighter Future for Student Wellbeing’, to explore how universities’ system could change from the inside.
Redesigning the curriculum to include emotional education is one of the options Fika is exploring, particularly after its recent survey has demonstrated that both students and educational workers believe it would have an enormous impact on students’ wellbeing. Meanwhile, universities across the country are slowly doing their part to address the issue. Last year, the University of Bristol became the first university in the UK to offer optional ‘Science of Happiness’ courses as part of the curriculum. Similarly, the Oxford Mindfulness Centre offers mindfulness courses for students and staff members at the University of Oxford, while other psycho-educational initiatives are being introduced across the sector.
Anxiety, depression, loneliness, bullying, body image issues and ‘fear of missing out’ are just some of the many phenomena that emerge from using social media and the internet on a daily basis. Where does Fika, as an app, stand in regards to social media’s responsibility for the youth’s mental health crisis? Reports show that both the internet and social media have been causes as well as cures to the mental health crisis, more specifically affecting the so-called ‘digital natives’. Speaking about this matter, Bennett told Screen Shot “We’re very committed to exploring and understanding how people’s relationships with technology affect their mental health, and, ultimately, just like our relationships with offline media (newspapers, magazines), we think there’s a mixture of good and bad at play.”
Fika cannot be the only answer to our generation’s mental health crisis. As Bennett explained, student services such as counselling and clinical support are still very much required to support students in distress. But there is no doubt that additional tools to tackle this crisis are needed urgently. In a time when institutions are struggling to respond to this emergency, means to preserve the wellbeing of students, and young people in general, can only be welcomed with open arms.
Mental health is not an easy topic to discuss. It’s one that, not that long ago, was never brought up in conversations, was taboo and often seen as a sign of weakness. Today, talking about your mental health (or someone else’s) is slowly becoming more common, with some countries and cultures more open-minded than others. Yet, when it comes to mental health problems, especially for teenagers, we still have to fight for more—more discussions and more help to reduce the stigma that surrounds it.
This is what four students from Oregon, U.S. worked towards by implementing a new law that allows students to take ‘mental health days’ off school, just as they would sick days. Talking to NBC News about this concept, experts said it is “one of the first of its kind in the U.S.”, something that is both worrying for the present and inspiring for the future. How have we not yet tackled mental health as a global topic that affects about 1 in 10 children and young people? And where does this stigma come from? Screen Shot spoke to Paris-based child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Hélène Strauss for some answers.
“Indeed, mental health problems, schizophrenia in particular, scare people away and convey this image of a crazy person that hears voices. In the U.S., with the healthcare system they have, Americans with health problems often end up homeless,” said Dr Strauss. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 70 percent of children and young people who experience a mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age. Mental health problems include depression, anxiety, self-harm, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorder. These are mental health problems that commonly occur in children, often as a direct response to what is happening in their lives.
“In France, teenagers that need mental health services can gain a medical certificate. Medical confidentiality is respected and their note never specifies a diagnostic. With the children’s agreement, the psychiatrist can then work with teachers and the headmaster in all discretion. Adolescence is a sensitive period and, sometimes, specific symptoms have to be taken care of urgently. Being able to miss school in order to seek treatment can be indispensable,” adds Dr Strauss.
A recent study by YouGov showed that 30 percent of millennials in the U.S. say they always or often feel lonely, a higher percentage than baby boomers, at only 15 percent. While this specific study didn’t look at the possible link between mental health and social media, earlier studies point to these platforms and the internet more generally as influences. Talking about social media, Dr Strauss says, “Social media made bullying and harassing easier. This can strongly affect a child and teenagers’ fragile mental health and lead to anxiety, sleep disorders, and suicide attempts.”
One of the four students who helped push the mental health bill, 18-year-old Haily Hardcastle, said she’s received some opposition from parents who said the legislation wasn’t necessary, as students could already take mental health days off by pretending to be sick. Others worried about students using this law as an excuse to miss more school, bringing down the already low attendance rates.
This mentality is exactly what pushes teenagers to lie about their mental health problems, it’s what keeps the stigma surrounding it alive. It is urgent for parents to realise that opening up this discussion is the only way to tackle mental health, and that calling kids ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘coddled’ does more damage than them missing a day of school because they feel physically or mentally ill.
Dr Hélène Strauss counter argues that even though this law is a big step forward in the discussion surrounding mental health, it is also a double-edged sword that clearly goes against the concept of medical confidentiality. Even a short stay in a psychiatric institution affects someone’s life—it shows on your medical record, influences your bank credits, and even your job opportunities. Dr Strauss’ worry is that this bill would be used against students in the future to almost ‘penalise’ them, instead of working in their favour. This point makes sense, considering how governments and lawmakers can sometimes manipulate people; yet it’s also one I choose to ignore for the moment, worried I might start wearing a tin foil hat or worse, storm Area 51.
What can we do in the meantime? Act on the public health domain first, and “Promote access to psychological care for children and teenagers, train teaching staff so that they can provide kids in need with guidance, implement school psychologists and prevention campaigns in schools” as Strauss stresses. Let’s make big changes with small steps.