Mollycoddled and cosseted or stressed and over-pressured. Energised and engaged or bored and turned off. Young people have so many labels and stereotypes slapped on them it’s a wonder these are not visible on their endless selfies. What is undeniably true is that the evidence suggests that rates of depression, self-harm and anxiety among young people are at unprecedented levels.
Youth unemployment is more than 13%, the cost of higher education is rapidly rising, a drought of affordable housing coupled with low pay is keeping many young people sealed under the parental roof and trapped in what one report called “suspended adulthood”. The ubiquity of the internet and social media, with its dark underbelly of hardcore pornography, body shaming and cyberbullying, is encroaching on their wellbeing, while a relentless focus on academic high-achieving is turning up the pressure in the classroom. Youth, traditionally thought of as the most enviable time of life, can now look like a deeply challenging and sometimes unpleasant time of life.
But is the experience of adolescence – defined as the period after childhood, from puberty to maturity – any tougher now than it was for previous generations? And when does it stop, given that some experts argue that full intellectual maturity is reached at the age of 27.
Among the events planned for World Mental Health Day, an exhibition by a small but successful charity in London aims to unpick some of the issues around the “lived experience of adolescent development”. Open Door has helped thousands of young people with therapy and support with problems including depression, anxiety, self-harm, drug and alcohol misuse, eating disorders, psychosis, sexuality and gender identity issues since it opened in 1976.
The exhibition, Adolescence Then and Now, marks the charity’s 40th anniversary, and director Julia Britton, one of the capital’s leading consultant child and adolescent psychotherapists, says demand for its services is greater than ever. “We are operating with a constant waiting list of around 100, we can’t even meet local demand. Parts of the country have nothing at all for young people with mental illness. The lack of provision is a huge issue for now, and a huge issue being stored up for the future.”
She says many of the issues facing young people have not changed. “I look at myself as a teenager in the 1970s and so many issues were around: teen pregnancies, drug and alcohol misuse, psychotic breakdowns, financial and identity pressures. But there are many differences, too. The context certainly is different. I think there are far more pressures educationally, more sense that it’s all hinged on one exam, and certainly teachers are hugely concerned about the mental distress they are seeing. Then there’s cyberbullying where you can’t switch off and you can’t get away. Pornography, a normal part of development, is now very far removed from Playboy. A lot of young people are disturbed by what they see online.
“The internet is both helpful and not. If young people type in ‘self-harm’, they can either go to a Young Minds website where they will be offered help and support, or to a destructive group which is discussing how to self-harm and hide eating disorders. So it’s good and bad,” she says.
The sense of a struggling generation has undoubtedly taken on new dimensions. Last week a poll by the charity Young Women’s Trust found that “suspended adulthood” was affecting the mental health of one in three 18-to-30-year-olds who felt worried about the future and under financial pressures due to low pay and lack of work or opportunities. More than half of the 4,000 surveyed were having to live at home with their parents.
“Make no mistake,”says Dr Carole Easton, chief executive of the charity, “we’re talking about a generation of young people in crisis. It is not in any of our interests to write off an entire generation.”
Abena is 18. A former mental health service user at Open Door, she interviewed artist Grayson Perry in a video project for the coming exhibition. They discussed the contrasts in their teenage experiences. He told her: “My family was quite screwed up, it was quite a volatile household and quite scary.” In 1976 Perry was 16 and had already been thrown out of his home by his stepmother over his transvestism: “When I was that age you hung out on the village green and got bored with others. I had low impulse control, I was incredibly angry until I went into therapy.”
What most struck Abena, she says, was that, while his cross-dressing was a major taboo and so a pressure point for him as a teenager, “he doesn’t remember having any issues over his body image at all. He doesn’t remember having a conversation about body image. But he remembers trying to keep his dressing-up from his parents and how everybody thought transvestism was very strange and taboo. That identity didn’t exist.
“Now I think that would be far more acceptable and people would be quite relaxed about that. But I feel like there are very real pressures around body image now that he didn’t have. Having social media now, it’s real pressure around how you look, making sure every picture is perfect,” she says.
“So the pressure he had then isn’t what we have now, but we have other ones. And it all depends on where you go in the world. I’m a black woman, but that would be a very different issue if I was living in America, for example. As a young person now I don’t drink very much, but I’m going to university where there is a real culture of drinking heavily and I find that really daunting. I’ll be in a minority, and being in a minority can be very uncomfortable,” says Abena. “I don’t think I’d have gotten through my bad times, to be honest, if I hadn’t been able to access Open Door. I don’t know how I’d have coped on my own. All the worries I had which felt too big to say to teachers or even my family, I was able to say there. It felt like home.”
Leigh Wildman, a therapist and support worker for young people with special needs, is 54. “I often wonder about whether I’d be on computer games if I’d been a teenager now instead of climbing trees, kicking a tin can down the road and making camps as we did then. Then later on there was music, of course, counter-culture music and art which rescued me. I left school at 15, but in those days you could go round the industrial estate and get a job and I did lots of jobs before taking off hitchhiking round Europe when I was 18,” she says.
“My mum was pleased, but I feel young people today are much more fearful. They stay at school longer, at home longer, and the world looks very daunting. They have to knuckle down at school and there’s no space to be light-hearted or to drift a little, to find out who they are, what kind of people they like. I had time for that, and I’m very glad I did,” adds Wildman.
Another teenager, a client at Open Door, is Elena, 17. She says all her friends at school suffer panic attacks and anxiety: “If you drop grades a bit, you feel a failure, you feel the teachers immediately ignore you for the people who are high achievers.
“It’s like you have to be this robot. I think it’s harder now in terms of all the pressures to look a certain way and keep up with everything, and I think it’s harder in terms of trying to speak to your parents or people at school who are not trained because when they were growing up mental health was not something anyone spoke about.”
And she adds: “ I’d cry in the classroom a lot at school, but teachers would just be a bit uncomfortable and you’d not want to open up. I’d just say I was having a bad day. I feel a lot more hope for the future now than I used to. I never used to think there was a future for me.”
1976 Around 93% of homes own a television. 2016 Young people spend more time online than watching TV.
1976: Sex Pistols prompt a media storm by swearing live on Bill Grundy’s TV show.
2016 Kanye West faces a backlash after calling Taylor Swift a bitch in a song lyric.
1976 Around 14% of people go to university. 2016 Around 40% of England’s school-leavers go to university.
1976 9.1% of UK men and 8% of UK females aged under 20 are out of work. 2016 13.6% of UK 16-24-year-olds are unemployed.
Confessing to boredom is confessing to a character-flaw. Popular culture is littered with advice on how to shake it off: find like-minded people, take up a hobby, find a cause and work for it, take up an instrument, read a book, clean your house And certainly don’t let your kids be bored: enroll them in swimming, soccer, dance, church groups – anything to keep them from assuaging their boredom by gravitating toward sex and drugs. To do otherwise is to admit that we’re not engaging with the world around us. Or that your cellphone has died.
But boredom is not tragic. Properly understood, boredom helps us understand time, and ourselves. Unlike fun or work, boredom is not about anything; it is our encounter with pure time as form and content. With ads and screens and handheld devices ubiquitous, we don’t get to have that experience that much anymore. We should teach the young people to feel comfortable with time.
I live and teach in small-town Pennsylvania, and some of my students from bigger cities tell me that they always go home on Fridays because they are bored here.
You know the best antidote to boredom, I asked them? They looked at me expectantly, smartphones dangling from their hands. Think, I told them. Thinking is the best antidote to boredom. I am not kidding, kids. Thinking is the best antidote to boredom. Tell yourself, I am bored. Think about that. Isn’t that interesting? They looked at me incredulously. Thinking is not how they were brought up to handle boredom.
When you’re bored, time moves slowly. The German word for “boredom” expresses this: langeweile, a compound made of “lange,” which means “long,” and “weile” meaning “a while”. And slow-moving time can feel torturous for people who can’t feel peaceful alone with their minds. Learning to do so is why learning to be bored is so crucial. It is a great privilege if you can do this without going to the psychiatrist.
So lean in to boredom, into that intense experience of time untouched by beauty, pleasure, comfort and all other temporal salubrious sensations. Observe it, how your mind responds to boredom, what you feel and think when you get bored. This form of metathinking can help you overcome your boredom, and learn about yourself and the world in the process. If meditating on nothing is too hard at the outset, at the very least you can imitate William Wordsworth and let that host of golden daffodils flash upon your inward eye: emotions recollected in tranquility – that is, reflection – can fill empty hours while teaching you, slowly, how to sit and just be in the present.
Don’t replace boredom with work or fun or habits. Don’t pull out a screen at every idle moment. Boredom is the last privilege of a free mind. The currency with which you barter with folks who will sell you their “habit,” “fun” or “work” is your clear right to practice judgment, discernment and taste. In other words, always trust when boredom speaks to you. Instead of avoiding it, heed its messages, because they’ll keep you true to yourself.
It might be beneficial to think through why something bores you. You will get a whole new angle on things. Hold on to your boredom; you won’t notice how quickly time goes by once you start thinking about the things that bore you.