By Diarmaid Twomey.

As someone who has worked with children and young people in various capacities for some time, I have been fascinated by the focus on their mental health in recent years. More specifically, I have focused on what society deems responsible for their mental health problems, and how it attempts to ‘solve’ them.

Given that media narratives either shape public discourse, or are reflective of them, for a recent small-scale research project I decided to conduct an analysis of print media articles that focused on children and young people’s mental health from the year 2018.

Complex issues often do not lend themselves very well to the binary nature of contemporary media discourses; unfortunately the complexity of children and young people’s mental health appears to be no different in this regard.

Services and technology?

To the fore, two significant ‘problems’ were identified: service resourcing and digital technology. Across the full body of 49 articles, from two of Ireland’s most read publications I analysed, there was almost no mention of poverty, inequality, or social structures having any explanatory value for the mental health problems faced by children and young people in Ireland today.

This deficit is against the backdrop of inequality often being linked to the development of mental health problems in a myriad of research. Furthermore, homelessness was only mentioned once, and that particular contributor identified young people’s lack of ‘resilience’ as instigating the mental health problems experienced by young people facing precarious living conditions. There was a tendency to individualise children and young people’s distress, identifying them as the ‘problem’ requiring remediation. Underlying determinants appeared to matter little.

Digital technology was also widely castigated for the mental health problems children and young people face. What is striking about the focus on digital technology within media discourse is the lack of any form of academic consensus that correlates a definitive cause-effect relationship between the overuse of digital technology and mental health problems.

In fact, some researchers have pointed to the possibility that digital technology could be used excessively by children and young people who are trying to navigate mental distress, rather than being an instigator of it. Yet the narrative created in much of the media discourse, often exacerbated by professionals and celebrities, seemed to imply that addressing digital technology use by children and young people could be the panacea to their mental health problems.

Similar to identifying service resourcing issues as the ‘problem’, this narrative appears symptomatic of a desire to simplify complex issues, while absolving society from a collective responsibility in creating the mental distress children and young people are experiencing. While there were other ‘problems’ identified within the analysed articles, the trend remained the same; mental health problems were individual in nature, devoid of a social, political or economic context, and almost always simplified.

Neoliberalism isolates the individual

While trying to make sense of these emerging patterns, I drew upon international literature regarding neoliberalism and its effects in the realms of mental health, and on children and young people. The concept of neoliberalism is a peculiar one, as it tends to be so widely used in popular discourse, yet is often left undefined.

However, in the context of my research, and much social science literature, neoliberalism has quite specific connotations. Primarily within the neoliberal society there is an ever increasing tendency to mark individuals out as responsible for their own distress. In the context of children and young people’s mental health this takes the form of also placing responsibility upon children and their parents in managing this distress. The effect of this is the sanitisation of the social, economic and political nature of mental health problems, as well as an array of other social ills.

Furthermore, neoliberalism has had the effect of marketising services that would previously have existed within the public domain, while also placing a huge degree of emphasis upon the value of ‘experts’ and technology in addressing social ills.

Another noteworthy aspect of neoliberalism is how hegemonic it has become; ultimately it has become so ingrained that the citizen sees and normalises their existence as solitary in many respects. For example, research conducted in Canada illustrated this point adeptly: young people involved in the research recognised that failure to achieve ‘success’ from within the narrow construct of value in their society would ensure they would be ‘left behind’. But it was their fault if they were left behind.

Given the tone of the discourse within an Irish context, and the media’s propensity to construct debates around distress in an individualised manner, our children and young people are no different.

Taking all this into account within the context of my research, I was struck by a psychologist bemoaning the pressures of our education system in driving mental distress, whilst proposing an antidote of encouraging young people to ‘achieve’ individual excellence in business.

Another commentator proposed that parents encouraged children to achieve individual excellence in sport as an antidote to individual pressures in the online world. But moving the goalposts is hardly a solution when the pitch remains waterlogged with individualised pressures and there is a constant threat of the bus leaving you behind if you can’t ‘achieve’ individual excellence in something society deems of worth.

Mental health has a social context

This increasing pressure to perform in every aspect of their lives makes a mockery of society’s dissociation from the perceived pressures of the online world. Every day, children and young people are castigated for being too ‘image conscious’ or ‘self-absorbed’, yet we have constructed a social world – one which we can’t simply blame Facebook for – where children and young people are all too aware that unless they perfect ‘brand-me’ they are destined to be of ‘no value’ in a society that appears infatuated with the individual.

After all, what is different between the pursuit of individual academic excellence, individual sporting excellence, or Instagram excellence other than our perceptions of its worth? 

Through our adoption of neoliberalism, we have created a society of inescapable and unrelenting individual mental turmoil, where there is a constant pressure to prove one’s worth and to manage one’s own vulnerabilities. Yet it appears that society and the media still observe solutions through the prism of the individual.

As a result, I would suggest that neoliberalism and its stranglehold on everything – from our job prospects to access to secure housing, to how our children and young people view how our society values or devalues them, to how we see children and young people’s mental distress – deserves much more media scrutiny. 

Problematising ‘likes’, or a lack thereof, for causing depression misses the wider point. In not identifying that, the media is simply creating a bogey-man to be the instigator of our children and young people’s distress. After all, do we really think social media exists in a vacuum?

Surely then, reports of ever-increasing anxiety and depression in our children will not be cured by expanding and privatising services which prescribe pills, talk-therapy, or the new fad of ‘resilience’ building. Sure, some of these things may help, some infinitely more than others.

However, Irish society, and the media in particular, needs to identify the enormous role the particular embodiment of neoliberalism it has engendered has played in damaging and casting aside many of our children and young people.

Ultimately it is us, Irish society, that is fuelling the distress our children and young people are experiencing. Until such a point as we accept that any media and social discourse that only problematises service gaps and social media, and sees ‘one good adult’, talk therapies, or life advice that is entirely individual in nature as the panacea to our children and young people’s distress, is merely tinkering around the edges of the problem. This tinkering is an abject failure of our children and young people, and ultimately all of us.

Diarmaid Twomey is a qualified social worker who works with children and young people. This article is based on research he completed as part of a Masters in Social Policy at the University College Cork. Follow him on Twitter @diarms_.

Top image: Stuart Kinlough/GettyImages.

Leave a Reply