3 Diverse and unequal experiences
3.1 Young people's mental health: diversity and inequality
We will now focus on young people's mental and emotional wellbeing, as a way of exploring how social divisions create diverse and unequal health experiences for young people.
Earlier in the course we cited claims that young people today are experiencing an increase in mental health problems. What is certainly clear is that there has been an increasing concern in the media and elsewhere about young people's mental health, resulting in a range of reports and initiatives.
But how are we to view young people's experience of mental health difficulties? Should they be seen as a part of ‘normal’ adolescent development, or as a cause for concern? Is vulnerability to emotional distress a universal experience, or are certain groups of young people more at risk?
Activity 4 Adolescence and mental health
Read the following extract from the website of YoungMinds, a national charity that works to improve the mental health of children and young people. How is young people's mental health presented here?
The period of late adolescence going into young adulthood is of crucial developmental importance. Major decisions affecting personal relationships, independent living, family and working life are made during this period. This transitional stage gives young people the opportunity to change direction and outlook. Socio-biological research suggests that there is a critical period extending into early adult life for the formation of self-image and social and reasoning skills.
Peer relationships appear to be more important than those with parents and other adults. It can be difficult both for young people and their parents to adjust during this period of separating. Where these adjustments are not made, mental health problems can arise, such as eating problems and depression. More than 10% of young people in this age range will experience a mental health disorder and will need skilled help. Many others will go though difficult and upsetting times which they will survive with the support of family and friends. A small minority of young people will begin to experience the first symptoms of psychosis, and these may be on-going.
This extract presents a certain level of mental and emotional distress as part of the normal experience of growing up. Behind this assumption lies a developmental model which views adolescence as a time of inevitable ‘storm and stress’ in the transition from childhood to adulthood and the formation of adult identities. However, the extract also suggests that a substantial minority of young people experience what it calls a mental health ‘disorder’ for which professional help is needed. Finally, the extract suggests that a much smaller minority will experience ‘the first symptoms of psychosis’ during adolescence.
Clearly, debates about what constitutes a mental health ‘problem’, ‘difficulty’, ‘illness’ or ‘disorder’ cannot easily be resolved, and a critical perspective on young people's wellbeing will emphasise that definitions change over time and vary between social groups. However, such a perspective would not deny the very real distress experienced by many young people, whatever its complex origins. At the same time, a critical approach does not view mental health difficulties as a universal experience. Instead, it aims to explore the ways in which social and contextual factors contribute to the experience of particular groups of young people.
Some commentators have seen the rising concern about young people's mental and emotional health as a mainly middle class issue. From this perspective, the moral panic about obesity and physical health problems is directed mainly at the ‘unhealthy’ habits and behaviour of working class young people. At the same time, concerns about mental health are seen to be focused on the stresses and strains of high-performing middle class teenagers under pressure to succeed in education and employment.
However, the research evidence would appear to contradict this easy stereotype, with a young person's chance of experiencing mental health problems significantly increased by the experience of social disadvantage. Class and social exclusion are, in fact, important factors in young people's vulnerability to mental health problems, and in their capacity to cope with them:
Research has suggested that the chances of developing into a mentally healthy, emotionally stable, coping adult are seriously impaired by social adversity, poor parenting, low intelligence, poor achievement, impoverished social networks and threatening life events. Indeed these risk factors themselves expose children to more adverse life events.
(Mental Health Foundation, 1999)
As our discussion of eating disorders in Section 2 demonstrated, young people's health and wellbeing are shaped in significant ways by social divisions such as class and gender. In the remainder of this section we look in detail at some of the factors that have an impact on young people's mental wellbeing and create diverse and unequal experiences. We will focus in particular on issues of gender and ethnicity.