Problem on the rise in schools, universities and in the workplace

Children, teens and young adults are suffering — they need a listening ear


We are a community that cares for its children. The stereotype of the Jewish mother - feeding, clothing and coddling their offspring, sometimes to the extreme - exists for a reason: children are seen as precious.

However, this desire for our sons and daughters to succeed has created higher and higher levels of expectation of young people.

According to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the number of recent Jewish university graduates is 59 per cent higher than in the general population, and the figure is rising.

The drive for academic success followed by career success can place damaging pressure on youngsters. The illnesses that result from this are in turn made worse by a reluctance to talk about them.

Young people can feel that they have let their parents down - that they have failed - if they admit to suffering from a mental illness.

Government research has shown that one in 10 children aged five to 16 have a mental disorder, with anxiety and depression the most common conditons.

Philippa Carr, recovery education manager for Jewish mental health charity Jami, takes her team into Jewish schools to teach students about the problems that many youngsters face. She warns that there are downsides to setting the academic and social bar so high.

She said: "We live in a society where the social message is all about achievement at every level. Young people hear those messages and they feel they have to aspire to success with a capital 'S'.

"We watch television programmes prescribing certain designer lifestyles and we're all pressured to look beautiful. Young people soak up those messages and think that if they don't look like celebrities, they aren't successful.

"There is that pressure, and particularly around exams and going to university we're constantly measuring ourselves against other people's successes."

Ms Carr said the problems schoolchildren experience are almost always associated with feeling under pressure and not being able to tell anyone.

"Children tend to say, 'It's really hard for me, because my sibling's really brilliant and at Oxford and I'm different, I'm not like her, I'm not as clever as her, does that mean I'm a failure?'

"And I hear kids say other stuff like,'I feel really stressed out about things at the moment, but I'm not sure if anyone really wants to know about it, and if I talk about it, will my parents think I'm letting them down?' They say they don't want to add to anyone else's stress."

Ms Carr, who has worked at Jami for around six months, said that the only answer is encouraging children to talk. "We know if we intervene early with young people, the outcome is better, so we need to break down these taboos about seeking help. It's important for parents to get that message too - it's not a failure of parenting if your child needs help."

If children have mental illnesses that are left untreated, they can simply rear their heads later, at university or in the workplace.

Research by the Mental Health Foundation charity found that in the UK, mental illness costs the economy £123.8 billion every year. With more help for victims - many of whom have been out of the workplace for years or have had to find new jobs that do not threaten their mental health - this figure could be greatly reduced.

Jami's employment initiatives team helped 200 people last year who were trying to return to work.

Angela Cooper, who manages the team, said finding employment was "transformative" for victims.

"If people have been out of work for six months or more, they have a really increased chance of developing or exacerbating mental health problems. We're probably talking about 50 or 60 per cent.

"I work with people who are socially isolated and seriously lacking in confidence, and as they start to gain some successes in training, volunteering or part-time paid work, you see the positive changes. It's the most rewarding part of my job."

Ms Cooper said for both financial and humane reasons, addressing the issue was of paramount importance for employers. "It's something they really need to be aware of, in regards to supporting staff who are already employed. Recruitment's a hugely expensive process, and if you can support staff who already have the skills you require, that's the best option."

To those who have little or no idea how they would discuss mental health with their employees, she said: "If you're concerned about somebody, if you think they're low or depressed, have the conversation.

"I would approach it as you would a physical health problem."

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