Surviving the 'best years of your life'
Headstrong’s new large-scale study with UCD has found startling levels of depression, self-harm and attempted suicide among young people, writes JOANNE HUNT
OVER FOUR in 10 young people in Ireland have said they felt their lives were “not worth living” at some point, a new study has found. The majority of these 17-25 year olds said they had felt that way in the past year.
The My World survey by youth mental health organisation Headstrong and UCD’s School of Psychology provides a startling insight into the minds of Ireland’s young.
Talking to 8,000 young adults whose average age was just 20, it found that more than one in five of them had self-harmed, two-thirds doing so in the past year.
Some 500 of the young people interviewed had made a suicide attempt, 180 of them in the past year.
The findings show that the experience of depression among our young, their levels of self-esteem, whether their parents are still together and their sexual orientation all prove significant factors in their likelihood to harm themselves or attempt suicide.
“For us, the key thing is that there are a lot of young people engaging in very serious behaviours that may be going unnoticed by their families or professionals,” said Barbara Dooley.
The UCD psychology lecturer and Headstrong’s director of research wrote the study with UCD research fellow, Amanda Fitzgerald.
One of their strongest findings is the link between increased levels of depression and the likelihood of self-harm or attempted suicide.
To categorise the severity of their depression, young people were asked to respond to an internationally recognised set of statements like
“I couldn’t seem to experience any positive feelings at all” or “I was worried about situations in which I might panic,” explained Dr Dooley.
“If you are at a normal level of depression, you have a 14 per cent rate of self-harm. That rises to 47 per cent among young people who have very severe depression,” she said.
Nearly 1,000 (14 per cent) of those surveyed fell into the categories of “severe” or “very severe” depression. Among those who were most depressed, there was an attempted suicide rate of 27 per cent.
Describing the findings, director of Headstrong Tony Bates said: “We look at young people and their lives may appear to be buzzing along but what we are seeing is that in reality for many, this is not the case.
“Many of our young are experiencing . . . periods of despair, which they may come through, but it’s significant that things can feel so bad that they think their life is not worth living.”
The My World survey shows that simply talking can have a life-saving effect. The attempted suicide rate among both young men and women who talk about their problems is 6 per cent, rising to 10 per cent for those who don’t talk.
A quarter of young people talk to no one when they have a problem with depression, the study found.
“I think stigma is definitely an issue here,” said Dr Dooley. “But I also think sometimes young people don’t have the language to articulate what they are feeling.”
Measured on their responses as to whether they felt they had good qualities, had much to be proud of, or were a person of worth, levels of self-esteem too were greatly linked both to self-harm and past suicide attempts.
Almost 69 per cent of young people indicated high levels of self-esteem, and the buffer effect of this meant their rate of suicide attempts was 4 per cent.
The rate among those whose self-esteem was low was 24 per cent. The self-harm rate of those with high self-esteem was 14 per cent; it was 50 per cent for those whose esteem was low.
Although the average age of those surveyed was 20, the nature of their parents’ relationship seems to play a massive role in a young person’s mental health.
For those whose parents were separated, divorced, single, remarried or deceased, at 12 per cent, their risk of suicide behaviour was twice that of those whose parents were married or cohabiting.
However, Dr Bates stressed that this finding had to be viewed in context.
“It’s not getting divorced in itself that made that person suicidal, but it may mean that it was not talked about, was hidden or caused a great deal of confusion.”
Dr Dooley said the finding highlighted the “loss” a young person could feel when things changed and the challenges of managing relationships with parents who had separated.
“We don’t want to demonise parents or say that the only thing is that parents should be together: that’s not necessarily the case,” she said.
Another striking finding was the link between sexual orientation and self-harm.
Self-harm rates among those who indicated they were gay or lesbian was 34 per cent, and those who were unsure of their orientation had a self-harm rate of 43 per cent.
Those who reported their orientation as bisexual had a self-harm rate of 56 per cent. Meanwhile, the rate for those who were heterosexual was 19 per cent.
Staggeringly, one in four bisexual young people in the study had at some point made an attempt to take their life.
Echoing recent comments by former president Mary McAleese, Dr Bates said: “It’s not their sexual orientation that’s making them feel suicidal, it’s what comes with that: the challenges it poses to fitting in, the threat it poses to being bullied, discriminated against and being rejected.”
The study also found over 40 per cent of Ireland’s 17-25 year olds fell within the World Health Organisation’s “problem drinking” range and 10 per cent in the “hazardous” range, with a further 10 per cent having “possible alcohol dependency”.
The effect of alcohol on mental health is clear to see.
“For young people who engage in harmful levels of drinking behaviour, self-harm rates were as high as 34 per cent, compared with 19 per cent for those young people with low risk alcohol problems,” said Dr Dooley.
Bullying and financial pressures have a striking effect on mental health too. The risk of self-harm and attempted suicide is almost twice as high among those who have been bullied at some point than among those never bullied.
Those “highly stressed” by their financial situation were twice as likely to self-harm and almost four times as likely to attempt suicide as those with no financial stress.
While the survey shows that, of those young people who received help, 37 per cent found it difficult to get the support they needed. Some 66 per cent of those who used Ireland’s mental health services found them beneficial.
Dr Bates said the research was about “prompting conversations”. He said the finding that “one good adult” in a young person’s life could make a difference was significant.
“Very many people are playing that role for a young person today and they don’t even know it,” he said.
“Even if you are the lollipop woman – that you look at them, give them a sense that you have noticed them on the planet or say something kind . . . many young people need more down the road, but this is something every one of us can do.”
WHAT OUR YOUNG PEOPLE REALLY SAY
1. SELF-ESTEEM AND MASTERY
I believe that mental health and wellbeing is extremely important but there is only so much a family member, friend, boyfriend or guidance counsellor can do. The person him/herself really needs to face their problems and believe in themselves that they can do it.
– 19 year old, female
2. SERVICE NEED AND PROMOTING AWARENESS
Mental health is an issue that I think is highly underrated, almost ignored by people, especially Irish people. I think people need to be made more aware of its existence.
There should be more open services to help people with it. There shouldn’t be any sort of stigma attached to it.
It’s something everybody goes through, whether they admit it or not. I don’t understand why people would be ashamed somehow of their difficulties.
– 21 year old, female
3. IMPACT OF THE LOSS OF A LOVED ONE
I know from personal experience that loss of a close family member (sister) has a long-term impact on family relationships and mental health.
– 23 year old, female
4. BENEFITS OF TALKING
I think this topic is an extremely important one for people my age.
Lots of people think that they are different or alone when there are so many others like them.
It’s so important to have someone/people you can talk to about anything and everything, no matter how small the problem seems.
– 20 year old, female
We need more people to talk about their problems. I feel that talking yourself out of a problem, whether personal or someone else’s, is the first step on the road to solving that very problem.
– 21 year old, male
5. STIGMA AND MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES
I would love to see the stigma surrounding mental health problems reduced. Also, the mental health services for teenagers in this country are extremely inadequate.
– 20 year old, male
The survey should have some more focus on self harm. It is a far bigger problem among young people than most people realise.
– 17 year old, male
Suicide among 15-24 year olds in Ireland, at
highest in the EU (National Office for Suicide Prevention, 2011)
of 17-25 year olds have thought their life was not worth living at some point
More than one-fifth
of 17-25 year olds in Ireland said they have self-harmed
of Ireland’s 17-25 year olds fell within the World Health Organisation’s
“problem drinking” range,
in the “hazardous” range, with
“possibly alcohol dependent”
Of young people who received help,
found it “difficult” or “very difficult” to get the support needed
Figures from My World survey