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How Do You Solve a ‘Problem’ Like Adolescence?

A Guide to Adolescent Mental Health!

Welcome to the bounce house called adolescence. This is where you’ll spend the next few years, learning about your identity, sexuality and gender. It’s also the place that will teach you coping mechanisms, problem-solving skills, risk-taking behaviour as well as the fine art of feeling misunderstood and irritable. 
While the physical changes of puberty can be unnerving, the emotional upheavals of adolescence are equally complex and often life-changing. Adolescence is used to describe the transitional stage in your life, roughly between the ages of 10 and 19, when a person matures into adulthood. It is a crucial period of not just physical transformation, but also social and emotional change. A lot of adolescence is experienced in the head and the heart. 
Half of all mental health conditions start around 14 years of age and most remain both undetected and untreated, according to the WHO (World Health Organisation). Depression is the fourth leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents aged 15-19 years globally and suicide is the third leading cause of death for that same age group. Too often, the mental health of adolescents is ignored by grown-ups — “It’s just teenage angst. They’ll grow out of it” — but the issues that take root during these years can have a huge impact on a person’s adult life.  
This is why it’s important to provide safe spaces where young people can share and explore their emotions, fears, and questions. Back in May 2019, we’d chatted with Nandita Chaudhary, a child development expert, and It’s Ok to Talk, a youth-focused mental health campaign, and discussed some common mental health issues that Indian adolescents face. 
If you feel like you can relate to the issues being discussed in the chat, take a look at the list of mental health resources at the end, and don’t hesitate to reach out for help. 
Here are excerpts from our chat with Nandita Chaudhary and It’s Ok to Talk. 
It’s ok to talk: The most common mental health problems faced by young people are anxiety and depression. In India, suicide and self-harm are the leading cause of death among young people. Common mental health stressors include academic pressures to succeed, the silence around gender, sexuality, love, and relationships, issues related to body image — how one should look and talk in order to feel accepted. 
Nandita Chaudhary: As children begin to search for close relationships beyond the family and childhood friends, they look outside for expanding their identity and developing a healthy and independent sense of self. Such explorations are to be expected and encouraged.
However, this intensification increases vulnerability to issues of body image, sexual identity, autonomy and independence, friendships, group belongingness, loneliness, family quarrels, substance abuse, and related troubles. 
There will be differences based on community, culture, class, age and gender. Issues are related to age, gender, class, community, family relationships and a host of other factors. The main thing is that this age is vulnerable.
Nandita Chaudhary: At this age [adolescence], awareness of other’s opinions is heightened and young ones are intensely sensitive to what is said about them. Excess pressure to conform or too little concern for well-being can also upset balance.
This leads to a greater possibility of feeling ashamed when negative comments are made about appearance, character, situation. Repeated negativity can create hurtful self-doubt & loathing, other problems. 
Serious self-doubt, perceived isolation, fear, lack of trust, absence of guidance, all these can lead to self-harm if self-doubt goes beyond proportion. But we need to be aware that this is normal up to a point. [It’s a cause for concern] when it becomes too intense, too frequent, and lasts too long.
It’s ok to talk: Shame arises out of us comparing ourselves and our abilities against largely accepted social standards and concluding that we fall short. Experiences like bullying can make us feel ‘shamed’ by others and can lead to distress, reduced self-confidence, and poor self-image.
Media representations of what is culturally seen as good, beautiful, or desirable can also contribute to this process. Feelings of shame can be exacerbated if the person starts internalizing that they are not good enough, or lacking in some way.
Shame can manifest in different ways for different people, but one of the most common experiences is reduced self-esteem and lack of self-confidence in young people-leading to anxiety, depression and poor mental health.
Sharing stories: What can we do to make this stormy time gentler?
It’s ok to talk: As a culture, we need to help young people feel supported and empowered to be able to express and present themselves without being made to feel stigma and judgement. This is a long-term cultural change that we can all work towards.
For adolescents who are reading: When you notice that your thoughts are spiraling into how you are not good enough, not thin enough or it's becoming overwhelming, pause and take a deep breath.
Notice that this is your inner critic talking and remember that you don’t have to accept what it says. Try to think of what you would say to a good friend who was feeling this way, and use those words to be supportive and compassionate to yourself. This takes practice!
Nandita Chaudhary: Dismissing someone as being too sensitive, stupid, or immature doesn’t work at this stage. By openness to discussing one’s own and other people’s experiences & handling, saying everyone goes through it to some extent, even if it doesn’t seem that way. By reassuring the adolescent that no one is perfect, that there’s a crack in everything, That’s where the light comes in from, as a well-known poet said once.
Only connect: building safe and caring spaces
It’s Ok to Talk: There are practical ways to cope with strong emotions, spaces where you can talk about how you are feeling. Reach out, talk about it to a friend or a trusted adult. If you feel that the pain and emotions are getting in the way of your daily life, seek help.
We need to build support systems in schools, encourage young people to be compassionate to themselves and to others, build peer support networks, and ensure there are appropriate mental health services for everyone.
Nandita Chaudhary: Understanding and not dismissal, conversation and not just instruction, acceptance and not rejection, supervision and not subjugation, affection and not over-controlling — these all go a long way in building family relationships and friendships. And for parents, talking to children about one’s own moments of doubt and how one dealt with them is an important discussion to have. Basically, being loving and available is key to felt support and trust.
You’re not alone
Here’s a list of organisations and helplines that are dedicated to helping adolescents.
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