Young people’s wellbeing
Young people’s wellbeing

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Young people’s wellbeing

4.2 The resilience model

In recent years the dominant approach to the promotion of young people's mental and emotional wellbeing has been to seek ways of developing resilience and of putting in place the protective factors that might reduce young people's vulnerability to mental health problems. Although the following statement from the Mental Health Foundation refers explicitly to children, the terms used are similar to those used in recommendations about the emotional wellbeing of young people:

Children are less likely to develop mental health problems if they have good communication skills, a sense of humour, religious faith, the capacity to reflect, at least one good parent–child relationship, affection, a family environment without severe discord, appropriate and consistent discipline, family support for education, a wider support network within the community, good housing, a high standard of living, a range of positive sport and leisure activities and a high morale school offering a safe and disciplined environment alongside strong academic and non-academic opportunities.

(Mental Health Foundation, 1999)

Simone Fullagar reports that policy responses to the high rates of suicide among young people in rural areas of Australia have focused on identifying risk factors such as previous suicide attempts, mental health problems and social isolation, and on promoting preventive factors such as social connectedness, problem-solving skills, and readily available mental health services (Fullagar, 2005, p. 32).

In some ways resilience has many similarities with the concept of social capital. The statement by the Mental Health Foundation portrays it as consisting of a ‘package’ of different components: personal qualities and skills, social relationships and support networks, and particular kinds of community and institutional environments. Clearly, the concepts of resilience and protective or preventive factors build directly on the holistic model of wellbeing that we analysed earlier, incorporating a similar combination of individual, material and social components. Like that model, the notion of resilience can be seen as a positive move away from conventional, medical models of health promotion that focused on the eradication of illness and on individual pathology.

However, it can be argued that some models of resilience are more ‘social’ than others. While some versions focus on the development of personal skills and strategies, such as emotional literacy or communication skills, others emphasise the importance of relationships and the development of a positive social environment. To some extent, the difference in emphasis depends on the political priorities of the moment. Governments operating within a ‘welfarist’ framework have tended to give priority to initiatives to eradicate child poverty and to improve access to education and employment, while those that are attempting to reduce state welfare spending encourage the development of skills that will enable the individual to thrive in a competitive world.

In keeping with the neo-liberal model of the ‘healthy teenager’ that we analysed in Section 2, recent initiatives to promote young people's mental health have tended to move away from an emphasis on social and material factors, and to focus more on personal skills and qualities. Two areas that have received increasing attention in recent years have been emotional literacy and spirituality.

There has been a growing interest, in both academic and policy circles, in emotional literacy and what some have termed ‘emotional intelligence’ (Goleman, 1995), and much of this attention has been focused on children and young people. There have been a number of programmes in UK schools aimed at helping children and young people to develop skills in dealing with and expressing emotions. Initiatives of this kind can be seen as reflecting the ‘new emotionality’ of contemporary culture analysed by many commentators. In their different ways writers such as Giddens (1991) and Rose (1999) have analysed late modern society's growing concern with the cultivation of the self, which is seen as something that needs to be worked on and developed, rather than simply as a ‘given’. (Comparisons can be made with the notion of the body as unfinished noted by Evans et al., 2004, and discussed in Section 2.) From this perspective, learning how to handle one's emotions is essential for success in learning and employment, and for achieving fulfilling personal relationships. Educational programmes designed to assist boys often target the development of their social, emotional and communication skills (McLeod, 2002, p. 213).

One of the organisations working with the UK government to improve young people's emotional literacy is Antidote, which works with schools and other organisations ‘to help shape learning environments that give young people the best possible opportunity to achieve and make a positive contribution’ (Antidote, 2005).

It is noticeable (and no accident) that Antidote's aims echo the language of the government's declared aim of helping young people to ‘achieve’ and ‘make a positive contribution’ as stated in the five outcomes in Every Child Matters. Arguably, the government's encouragement of ‘emotional literacy’ programmes for children and young people is part of the new model of the healthy young person as a skilful, coping and enterprising individual that we analysed in Section 2.

Clearly, programmes that encourage young people to cope with their emotions more effectively are of value in promoting their emotional wellbeing. However, it can be argued that an exclusive emphasis on such programmes risks returning to a model that individualises mental health, locating the ‘problem’ and its solution in the individual young person's personal skills or lack of them, and drawing attention away from the social and contextual factors which require strategies and solutions at a societal level (as discussed in Section 2).

A second area that has become the focus for policy makers concerned to promote young people's emotional wellbeing is spirituality. The terrorist attacks in the USA on 11 September 2001 and in the UK on 7 July 2005 have been the catalyst for much public soul searching about the role of religion in late modern Western societies. However, even before these events, governments in the USA and UK were seeking to encourage the contribution of ‘faith communities’ to social policy, with both the Bush and Blair governments apparently keen to support ‘faith-based’ welfare initiatives. Recent education policy in the UK has sought to support the work of faith schools, and representatives of religious groups have been invited to contribute to policy forums. While involvement in formal religion has declined in most Western societies, recent years have also seen an upsurge of interest in issues of spirituality, with Eastern and ‘new age’ spiritual practices increasingly popular.

In this context the notion that faith and spirituality might be useful resources in developing individual and community wellbeing has become popular among policy makers. The Mental Health Foundation statement quoted at the start of this section included ‘religious faith’ as one of the positive factors that could safeguard young people against the experience of mental distress. A research report published in 2005 appeared to bear this out, with young people who had a religious faith apparently expressing a more hopeful and positive attitude to life than their more sceptical and secular peers (Francis and Robbins, 2005). In 2003 the UK government funded the National Institute for Mental Health in England (NIMHE) and the Mental Health Foundation to carry out a two-year research project to explore ‘the importance of spirituality in a whole person approach to mental health’ (NIMHE, 2003). Professor Antony Sheehan, Chief Executive of NIMHE and Group Head of Mental Health in the Department of Health, was quoted as saying: ‘Spirituality is increasingly being identified by people with mental health needs as a vital part of their mental wellbeing and recovery from ill health; and is coming to greater prominence in our multicultural society’ (NIMHE, 2003, p. 2). A YoungMinds study of the mental health of black and minority ethnic young people concluded that religious faith was a powerful resource for some groups:

In the face of depressive and schizophrenic symptoms, prayer was perceived as particularly effective among African Caribbean Christian and Pakistani Muslim groups … However, another study found that, relative to other kinds of help for depression, religious activity was not seen as particularly helpful, but that Muslims believed more strongly than other groups in the efficacy of religious coping methods for depression.

(Street et al., 2005, cited in Meier, 2005, p. 17)

As with the renewed emphasis on emotional literacy, it is undeniable that a positive and hopeful outlook on life, whether inspired by religious belief or anything else, is likely to protect young people against depression, and may help them to cope with the everyday anxieties of youth. On the other hand, it can also be argued that this emphasis on the value of a ‘positive’ faith, regardless of its content, has its dangers. It can be seen as denying the important part played by doubt, scepticism and intellectual exploration in the experience of adolescence. The emphasis on the value of faith is consistent with the emphasis on youth as a time of achieving, contributing and generally being positive and enterprising that was discussed earlier in the course.

Attempts to employ spirituality as a resource for promoting young people's mental health also run the risk of emptying belief of any content – viewing it simply as a neutral ‘resource’, like other forms of social capital – and glossing over awkward contradictions. Is acquiring or maintaining a strong religious faith necessarily a good thing for all young people, whatever the nature of that faith and its beliefs and practices? Does encouraging ‘faith’ as an element of social policy mean supporting religious groups that have illiberal attitudes to women and gay people? And if a strong sense of purpose is always a good thing, should we also encourage young people to join extreme political organisations?

It could be argued that, in some instances, a ‘positive’ faith might actually be detrimental to a young person's mental health, and that rigid adherence to a religious or political faith might be a symptom of mental distress rather than its solution. Writing about the lessons to be drawn from the London bombings of 2005, Richard Meier states:

It was said of one of the suicide bombers, Hasib Hussain, that he ‘went off the rails’ as a young teenager but became a reformed character when he ‘suddenly became devoutly religious’ two years ago.

(Meier, 2005, p. 17)

Reflecting on this quotation again leads us to question what exactly we mean by wellbeing in relation to young people. Was Hasib Hussain a more whole or healthy person before or after he became ‘devoutly religious’?

This kind of critical questioning helps to undermine any universal notion of what constitutes wellbeing, and to be critical of attempts to impose a single set of healthy ‘outcomes’ on all young people, whatever their circumstances. It is also important to acknowledge that many young people experience youth as a time of difficulty and uncertainty, but that this may have no serious long-term consequences for them. If a young person has been brought up in an unquestioning religious faith or in a claustrophobic family environment, then their teenage years might be a time of necessary breaking away, with its own inevitable but perhaps short term distress. On the other hand, research into youth subcultures such as Paul Hodkinson's study of ‘Goth’ culture has demonstrated that affiliation to such groups can be a powerful source of identity and community for young people, even when the culture of the group may appear macabre and ‘unwholesome’ to adults (Hodkinson, 2002).

Figure 3
© Allan Ivy/Alamy; and © Design Pics Inc./Alamy ©
© Allan Ivy/Alamy; and © Design Pics Inc./Alamy
Figure 3 Religion versus youth subculture: which is healthier for young people?
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