The kids aren’t alright

By Kieran Madden July 12, 2022

A Minister admitting a crisis is a rare thing these days. So, while Andrew Little is copping flak for arguing our health system overall is “coping,” his admission a few months ago that our “children and adolescent mental health services are in crisis” is a big deal. Our kids aren’t alright, and it should be a bigger deal for all of us.

Our children and young people were already struggling with mental health before the pandemic. Still, COVID piled “a crisis on top of a crisis,” according to Mental Health Foundation CEO Shaun Robinson.

Our youth suicide rates are some of the worst in the OECD. In an excellent investigative series on this issue, the New Zealand Herald reported that “mental health crisis teams operated by DHBs saw 50 percent more young people in urgent distress last year than they did ten years earlier in the past decade.” UNICEF stated that antidepressant prescriptions for those under 19 rose 78 percent from 2008 to 2016. Around 19 percent of 15-24-year-olds were suffering psychological distress in 2021, up from about 5 percent in 2012. In contrast, older New Zealanders (65+) have remained around 3-4 percent across the same period.

Adolescence is already awkward; navigating the transition from childhood to adulthood is difficult at the best of times. Many in these hyper-connected generations are dimly scrolling through life, exposed to more stresses and ill-equipped to make sense of the world and something of themselves as we keep telling them to. Add an identity crisis on top of the other two.

“In the age of ‘I’m Free to Be Myself,’” wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks, “you are expected to find your own career path, your own social tribe, your own beliefs, values, life partners, gender roles, political viewpoints, and social identities.” Limitless freedom, endless possibility, and you-do-you authenticity have left our young people overwhelmed, anxious, and adrift.

Something is clearly wrong here, and as a nation, we’re not concerned enough.
Former Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman went so far as to say that this is one of the “biggest risks the world faces, up there with infectious diseases, violent conflicts and climate change.”

This Government has invested in mental health, but the relative spending on children and adolescents is not proportionate to the need. They are starting to focus more attention on acute and specialist services, but this is only a start.

While the bottom-of-the-cliff stuff is in crisis, we can do more at the fence-at-the-top—there is considerable room to improve preventative measures. An encouraging example is Mitey, a home-grown, evidence-based youth mental health initiative recently launched by the Sir John Kirwan Foundation.

Getting behind and funding initiatives like this is critical. More systematically building resilience, self-efficacy, and knowledge of emotional well-being and empathy for others will help our young people stand more firmly amidst the inevitable blusters of life. Let’s acknowledge this for the crisis it is and get on with it.

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