Why Are So Many Young People In The UK’s Second City Struggling With Anxiety?
The Brum Youth Trends report recently published by Beatfreeks shows the incredible extent to which young people in Birmingham are struggling with anxiety.
According to the report, over half of the young people surveyed said they struggled with anxiety in some way.
Many of them contributed this anxiety to their studies. Young people also appear to be turning their backs on traditional mental health services and there appears to be an alarming disparity between the extent to which young females are struggling with anxiety in relation to young men.
The aim of the Brum Youth Trends report is to find out what young people think and feel about themselves and their city. It looks at 8 key areas of life, one being health and mental health, which this article is based on. I took the report away and spoke to a variety of different people such as students, researchers, mental health professionals and journalists. I tried to find out why young people in Birmingham seem to be struggling with anxiety so badly and what can be done about it.
An anxiety epidemic?
58% of young people surveyed said they struggled with anxiety in some way. This figure surprised me personally, but many of the professionals and young people I spoke to didn’t seem shocked or appalled, it seemed to chime with what they had experienced in their respective professional and personal lives. The stat also seems consistent with what’s going on around the country more widely. NHS figures in July showed a massive increase in the number of young people under the age of 19 being treated by NHS mental health services, in particular for conditions such as ‘anxiety, depression and eating disorders.’
I spoke to Richard Whiting, a research associate at the University of Birmingham working with homeless young people supported by St. Basils. He told me that, he actually thought that 58% was “quite a low number” and he wasn’t surprised by it. When I reacted in shock he said: “most of the young people that we work with, and of course that is a very specific group of the population, almost all of them have [had] experience with mental health difficulties, so I’m not surprised it’s high.”
My generation, Generation Z, born in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, are known as ‘digital natives’. We grew up surrounded by technology and have never known anything over than the internet. It might be said that this leads to young people becoming detached from reality and able to get through life quite easily without the need for meaningful, physical, human to human interaction. Some say that Social media, forces younger people to portray a version of themselves to the world that isn’t necessarily reflective of reality.
I interviewed Stu Baker, a personal trainer, author and mental health advocate. He told me that he would “hate to be a kid” in this generation, adding that “[young people] are made to look up to and try to be somebody else, you should be your own person.”
I often wonder if this generation of young people suffers from mental health problems disproportionately more than previous generations or if we’re just more open to discussing our mental health as the stigma slowly fades away.
Students under pressure
Along with technology and social media, changes to the education system and the increasing pressure put on young people came up often.
A young teacher told me that the combination of technology and changes in parenting is putting extra pressure on young people, “The evolving nature of the education system also keeps making the bar higher and makes students think they aren’t doing good enough.” The recent shakeup of the education system – the so-called ‘Gove reforms’ – have made it harder to achieve higher grades in both GCSE and A-Level qualifications and put students under more and more pressure.
The Brum Youth Trends report found that 37% of young people in Birmingham related their anxiety to study. The number of people relating their anxiety to educational pressures peaked between the ages of 15 and 17 – those likely to be taking their GCSE’s.
Richard Whiting told me that: “to study effectively you need to put yourself under a little, healthy amount of stress, but when that stress is so consistent and so impactful due to one exam [dictating] your entire life, that’s not a healthy environment to learn things in and develop yourself in as a human being.”
I wanted to find out about what can be done to help young people with the additional pressures of exams more generally. I spoke to Paul Burstow, former minister of state for care services and professor of mental health policy at the University of Birmingham. When I asked him about the pressures that young people face, he said that “there’s no doubt that the pressures of the exam system and expectations around higher education [are] much greater.”
He went on to say that “it’s not necessarily just about trying to change the exam system, it is about having a balanced approach that gives young people the opportunity to access [services] to help with some of that stress.”
As schools become more academic and subjects like art, music and sport get left behind; young people also have fewer places to turn outside of school. Following cuts to local council schemes and the closure of over 600 youth centres around the country, it recently emerged that the National Citizen Service, a large part of David Cameron’s “big society” policy, was reaching ‘relatively few teenagers.’ The project was allocated £1.5bn of government spending overall.
Young people are turning their backs on ‘traditional institutional structures’
Only 5% of young people surveyed in Birmingham are now using ‘traditional institutional structures’ such as mental health professionals and mental health services, according to the Brum Youth Trends report.
The report notes that ‘young brum seem to be less interested in discussing their issues with a mental health professional, with only 5% using traditional institutional structures. Mental health professionals are a secondary resource, young people are becoming more self-reliant when dealing with their anxieties.’ This stat, at face value, doesn’t necessarily tell us which young people are turning their backs on mental health services and the extent of their problems. But it might be indicative of young people being reluctant to seek help if they are experiencing issues.
Young people face long waiting lists for support. A recent report by charity Young Minds has said that without a fresh approach to supporting young people they could “start to self-harm, become suicidal or drop out of school.”
I spoke to a young artist from Birmingham who is soon to be studying social work at University. I asked them if they thought there are enough services in the city of Birmingham and places for young people to turn to if they need support; “I think there are enough services, however, I don’t think there are enough [professionals] in the services, people get stuck on waiting lists for years. Professionals end up leaving. I don’t know if it’s because of the working conditions, but they leave often.”
When I asked Paul Burstow if the 5% figure worried him he said: “It does, although the specialist mental health services are obviously there to deal with more complex cases and more severe mental health problems. Having said that, what we lack and need more of is the early intervention and early support that can be there for people when they need a little bit of help to be able to cope with the pressures they’re under.”
The University of Birmingham has rolled out a programme of mental health first aid, aimed at equipping staff with skills and awareness to be more responsive to mental health issues. Last year it was announced that one million people across the country will soon receive basic mental health first aid training.
An alarming disparity between genders
The Brum Youth Trends report tells us that young females are struggling with their mental health disproportionally more than young males. Of those feeling anxious ‘all the time’ 70% are female.
A recent survey – Girls’ Attitude Survey – has shown a clear fall in the happiness levels of young women and girls. Only 25% of girls and young women now describe themselves as ‘very happy’ as opposed to 41% 10 years ago.
It also appears to be the case that women from minority backgrounds are more likely to develop mental health issues and problems with anxiety.
The website for the Mental Health Foundation says that generally, black and minority ethnic groups, both male and female, living in the UK are: “more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems” and “more likely to disengage from mainstream mental health services, leading to social exclusion and a deterioration in their mental health.”
Marverine Cole, a journalist and course director for BA Hons journalism at the University of Birmingham, has recently released a documentary called “Black Girls Don’t Cry” which explores the relationship between black women in the UK, their mental health and the stereotype of black women being “strong, sassy and independent.”
I asked Marverine if after the documentary she thought that the stereotype of black women appearing as strong and independent could affect young black women. “The stereotype has been around since I was young, you almost feel like you need to uphold it. After my documentary, I had a lot of messages, emails and tweets saying that ‘what you said in your documentary really resonated with me because for so long I’ve felt like I can’t say that I’m under pressure because people will say I’m so strong.’”
“Today, issues are different. Technology has changed, social media consumes people’s lives. Surveys show that the effects of social media are having a disproportionate effect on the mental health [of women.]”
Before we conclude our interview Marverine leaves me with a lyric from Lady Leshurr, who she describes as “one of the finest rappers from Birmingham”:
“Retweets don’t pay your bills, and likes don’t pay your rent”
This new report gives us important insight into the lives of Birmingham’s young and it should, of course, be taken on board by those in the UK’s second city with the capacity to bring about change. However, it’s also important to note that the statistics in this report chime with what is going on in the country more widely.
We often hear in the news about NHS mental health services being at breaking point and of students struggling with the extra pressures of exams. The findings from this report are indicative of a wider problem.
It would be irresponsible to simplify the issues that young people face and say that it's all down to social media, technology and education. The issues facing young people today are complex. It’s hard to really pinpoint why young people are struggling with issues such as anxiety, but the more we talk about it, it will hopefully get easier to provide help for those that are.