Mental health: we’re failing our young people

With levels of anxiety and depression increasing among adolescents, we should be as exercised about mental-health services for the young as we are about people on hospital trollies

During the past seven years we have come through a recession, yet levels of anxiety and depression among adolescents are higher than they were then.

That’s according to the latest My World survey conducted by the young people’s mental health service Jigsaw and UCD, which was first done in 2012. In all, 19,000 young people took part.

Thinking well of yourself (self-esteem), being optimistic and being able to recover when things go wrong are all qualities that protect mental health. Yet levels of these qualities have fallen especially, interestingly, among girls and young women.

I say “interestingly” because we often associate poor mental health with young men.


The extent to which young people were unhappy with their own bodies also worsened more for young women than young men.

Rachel White, who is on the Jigsaw Youth Advisory Panel, was 12 when the first My World survey was published. She writes in the new report that she would like "to be able to celebrate the advances in young people's mental health over the last decade since the first wave of My World Survey. But I don't see it, and so I can't write that."

She acknowledges the positives: that fewer young people report drinking alcohol, that social media helps users build real-life connections and that more young adolescents have a special adult they can turn to for support.

That point about a special adult is important. The report says of those who have someone to turn to: “Adolescents who reported having high/very high levels of support from a special adult displayed significantly higher levels of life satisfaction, self-esteem, body esteem, family cohesiveness, personal competence and optimism than their peers.”

But all this “is clearly not enough”, White writes.

Life experience

The increase in anxiety and depression is especially worrying, it seems to me, because young people don’t have the life experience to help them get through these dark episodes which are even too much, as we know, for many older people.

Learning to deal with these issues now could save them years of distress – could even save their lives.

The message I would like young people to have is that they need to accept themselves in a world outside their control. They need to have goals and to struggle but with acceptance of the outcomes. The surfer doesn’t control the waves but can celebrate victories while accepting that, quite often, he or she is going to get dumped into the sea.

I would like adults to continue to push for decent conditions at work and elsewhere for the sake of those who are coming after them. The young barista who’s making your Americano has sometimes overwhelming financial and other demands to meet.

And I would like us to get as exercised about mental-health services for the young as we rightly do about people on hospital trollies.

As an individual, it’s worth remembering that point above about “special adults”. If you are the supportive adult for a child or adolescent – if you value them for themselves and have their best interests at heart – then this in itself will be hugely beneficial for that person. The supportive adult could be a teacher, a coach, an employer, an aunt, uncle, parent or sibling who values that young person. Imagine having nobody on that list who values you,

Most young people with anxiety and depression do, of course, have family who deeply care about them but who don’t know what to do. And that brings me back to the necessity for responsive mental-health services with minimal waiting lists.

I'll finish with this quote from an article by Aimee Austin on the website, Referring to waiting lists and a scarcity of mental-health services services, she says this of young people who can't cope: "They have taken their lives in my neighbourhood and in my university. I see articles every day of another suicide because the support they needed was not there for them.

“These people weren’t cowardly or selfish, they were failed by you.”

– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (