1. Youth image
Young people don't get the easiest time of it. Apart from suddenly being expected to decide 'who they are' and where they fit in to society – there are a whole host of new tasks and priorities all screaming for attention. How to cope with relationships; exams; college; work; family; and peers? Biologically - hormones are raging, financially - there is pressure for independence, and behind all this their emotional world is revealing new depths never before encountered.
Not many of us are well equipped to cope with so much within such a short space of time. We can hope that there are supportive people behind us pushing us through the difficult times or pulling us through with the benefit of their experience – but this isn't always the case. It doesn't help that the media just love to portray all youth as fitting into a couple of mainly negative stereotypes. It helps even less when politicians, the 'general public' and sometimes even your family begin to believe the negative hype. Of course every stereotype will always have some examples that back it up – but the majority of young people are just trying to find their way through, and don't always have the time or the confidence to ask for help or support to navigate the roller-coaster. Low self-esteem can also discourage young people from even thinking they deserve some help. And not getting the right support or advice – will often reduce self-esteem even further. It's a bit of a negative 'loop'. Here we look at some of the unhelpful stereotypes young people face on a daily basis – and look at some of the evidence that challenges these views.
Some of the definitions of stereotypes you can find on the net show why the media love to use them:
- 'A fixed, commonly held notion or image of a person or group, based on an oversimplification of some observed or imagined trait of behaviour or appearance…' OP
- 'A form of media representation by which instantly recognized characteristics are used to label members of social or cultural groups. While often negative, stereotypes can contain an element of truth and are used by the media to establish an instant rapport with the audience…'
So while it's hard to escape the 'element of truth' in that some young teenage girls may be getting pregnant and a very small number of young people may be involved in gangs or crime – the power of news and media interest is such that these become stereotyped labels that stick in the minds of the general public – despite all the factual evidence to the contrary. Challenging negative stereotypes – by promoting the less sensational but more realistic facts that most young people are doing really positive things – is hugely important. For young people with mental health difficulties – who may lack confidence on their own - challenging the negative stereotypes is even more vital. This is where working together with friends, peers, families, advocates and professional staff can really make a difference, and learning how to employ the power and influence of the media through websites, blogs, film, written articles, radio and tv can help to show the real picture. Young people, with and without mental health problems, are all wanting to make their way in the world and hoping for the opportunity to live their life to its fullest positive potential.
2. Gangs & violence
The media can be a powerful tool in creating or reinforcing stereotypes. An example is the public perception that youth crime is dramatically on the rise, or out of control. This impression has been created largely through media coverage of alarming stories about high school shootings, property crimes, and incidents involving youth gangs. Undoubtedly, violence happens – there are tragedies – but portraying each individual story as more widely representative of youth behaviour is extremely damaging for community trust, understanding and cohesion. People's expectations of any identifiable 'group' are a major factor in how they act around that group. If people expect most young people to be angry or violent they will act accordingly, by avoiding interacting or even talking to them which in turn leads to a lack of understanding and further fear and mistrust. This cycle quickly spreads through communities making it more likely that young people will feel ignored and isolated leading to frustration and ironically, a potential increase in negative behaviours. Many communities are realising that these negative cycles have to be broken and, community workers, young people, police and public are directly tackling this situation through positive community initiatives that build on trust, communication and understanding – but it requires real effort and a balanced and supportive attitude from those working in the media to really help improve the situation.
In Birmingham, Envisions 'Truth about Youth' programme has been running in partnership with the Cooperative Foundation. The programme aims to inspire young people to challenge the negative stereotypes of young people by promoting the positive contributions they make in their communities. Last year over 500 young people aged 16-19 volunteered to take part in the Envision School Programme delivering 88 innovative environmental or community projects tackling the issues they felt passionate about over a 9 month period. It is inspirational work such as this that needs to be promoted to redress the balance of the image of youth.
Mental health and emotional wellbeing in western cultures is often seen as a very different thing to physical health – if it is even recognised at all. Our specialist mental health services, are organised and run separately to our physical health services – with GP's trying to span the divide. Additionally, our child and adolescent mental health services are usually run separately from our adult mental health services, with little real communication and sometimes a lack of understanding between the two. To confuse the picture even further our social care services are often run by yet another group of organisations, with further opportunities for confusion and lack of a joined-up approach to an individuals health. Many other cultures recognise a much closer relationship between different aspects of health, often viewing mental, physical and spiritual health, and the environment they live in as vital and interconnected elements of a whole-person approach to health.
These different attitudes to health, alongside the experience of social inequalities, racism and poverty that has been part of the experience of many people from minority ethnic groups living in the UK may contribute to the understanding of why these groups are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems, admitted to hospital and often experience poorer outcomes from treatment.
Birmingham is vibrant and culturally diverse city, with one of the youngest populations of any city in Europe. The knowledge that mental health difficulties generally appear in adolescence and early adulthood, combined with a diverse population has led to some innovative approaches to treatment in recent years. The Birmingham specialist mental health Trust was one of the pioneers of an early intervention approach to serious mental health difficulties and BSMHFT is currently working towards a preventative strategy for mental ill health in young people across the region.
Someone's culture, ethnicity and faith is at the core of their identity and worldview, and all of these elements need to be regarded as relevant and respected for any preventative strategy for working with mental health to be effective.
4. Stigma and MH
People with mental health problems consistently identify stigma and discrimination as key factors negatively impacting on their lives. If you have a physical health problem, you are regarded as a good citizen if you seek help to have this treated, and are unlikely to have this held against you. The situation is very different for mental health problems however, and although people are encouraged to get help quickly – the very fact they register for help with mental health can be used to discriminate against them for years into the future e.g. for travel (problems with visas), for insurance, for responsible positions (our MP's may be barred from taking their seat if they have been treated for mental ill health.)
Stigma often starts young – with name calling in the playground or someone being perceived as 'different' given a negative label. The Department of Health's annual attitude survey constantly finds that stigma in relation to mental ill-health is still operating strongly in the UK – despite the knowledge that mental illness affects very large numbers of people – at least one in four of us. Translating this statistic would suggest that everyone is highly likely to either know or be in regular contact with someone with a mental illness – but prejudicial attitudes still prevail. Findings from the DoH survey include:
- 1 in 8 people would not want to live next door to someone who has had a mental health problem
- Nearly 6 / 10 people describe a person with a mental health problem as “someone who has to be kept in a psychiatric or mental hospital”
- One third of people think people with mental health problems should not have the same rights to a job as everyone else.
More evidence of stigma from the general public comes from a survey commissioned for the national anti-stigma campaign Time to Change which found that people may find it more difficult to get jobs if they admitted their mental illness in a job interview. The study asked more than 2000 people around the UK to imagine they were interviewing someone for a job, who admitted that from time to time they suffered from depression. Even though the respondents considered this person the best candidate for the job, more than half (56%) would not employ them because of their mental illness giving reasons such as worries over reliability or undermining team morale.
Interestingly, the survey found that bank workers were the most likely to discriminate against someone with a mental illness with 46% of respondents working in this sector either reluctant to employ someone with a mental illness because they'd be unreliable or worried that they'd get the blame for employing them if they went off sick. Not good news for those seeking work in the current climate.
It is often the stigma surrounding mental health problems far more than the problems themselves that prevent people from achieving their full potential and making their best contribution to society. We need to be able to call on the experience and skills of all members of our society. Stigma prevents those talents from being employed.