On mental health and youth: A few personal reflections, S N Smith, Ottawa


On mental health and youth: A few personal reflections, SN Smith, Ottawa

I am not a mental health expert nor will I pretend to be one here. But I do notice trends which highlight the rising awareness and prevalence of mental health problems within society. Although there are many excellent information campaigns and initiatives to help reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems, there remains much work to do. Most people who are struggling continue to put on a brave face and present themselves as being strong when inwardly they are suffering because showing one’s weakness or vulnerabilities is not always a comfortable place to be in.  People are expected to be strong and have it all together at all times and anything less than that constitutes a kind of moral failure or weakness of character. That is a sad conclusion to make, but it happens to be the truth and the truth is not always what we want it to be.
I am specifically thinking here of young people who are trying to find direction in life but who may be overwhelmed by the expectations placed upon them, as well as the many challenges they know they have to face in this rapidly changing and increasingly chaotic world where we can take nothing for granted and that stability is an illusion at best.

There are expectations that are placed on young people which they may not be willing or able to live up to. But it is the case that many youths — and adults too, of course —  are forced to put on an act or conform, if for no other reason than mere survival. They are very much aware of the consequences associated with taking another path than the one expected of them. This can generate a lot of inward resentment and feelings of entrapment to the point of despair due to there being no way out.

What kind of impact is all of this pressure and uncertainty having on our youth as they seek direction for their lives? And do some people simply give up and withdraw into themselves because it is simply too much and they find other ways to cope that are not always healthy?

Parents naturally want their children to do well in life as it reflects well on their parenting skills and they have invested a lot of time and energy into their children’s well-being. But the child may not always wish to follow the path set out for them but instead choose an altogether different direction. Parents have to learn to let go and allow their children to make their own mistakes and know that they do not possess the capacity to protect their children from every harm and disappointment in life.

I think I understand much of this because I was deeply depressed throughout most of my teens as it was a scary and uncertain time. In many ways, the depression never fully went away and I find it hard to cope with the real world because the expectations to perform well is too much at times.

Keep in mind that even the most seemingly confident and successful person can experience feelings of low self-esteem and inauthenticity. Many people suffer from very low levels of self-esteem and are thus unsure of their abilities, even when they may appear to be high achievers. Sometimes these feelings can be overwhelming to the point they become debilitating. Others may feel too stupid or too inferior to achieve or deserve anything. But why this emphasis on achievement and why does it have such a narrow meaning? One could not have a dime in their name and still be successful; it all depends upon how success is defined.

An individual’s value as a human being must never be tied to what they do or achieve in life. That is not a license for slothfulness or apathy,  but rather a human-centred approach where individual possess value due to their being human with no other consideration whatsoever.

Parents can contribute to the problem or they can be a help. For example, parents place pressure on their children to follow a certain path or live their lives a certain way even though their children don’t want it. But even when the parents are easy going and very liberal with their children, many youths still struggle because the answers regarding what path to take are no always clear and are, in fact, many times intimidating and frightening.

If I were to offer any kind of advice to anyone reading this, I would say the following:

— Admit your mistakes, and even embrace them.

— Acknowledge the good parts of yourself and the not so good parts and know that both constitute who you are as a person.

— An know that many people have an opinion about you, but the opinion you have of yourself is the only one that really matters for it shapes how you see and interact with the world around you.

In my humble opinion, the message should always be conveyed that it is ok to fail, it is ok to be average or below average, and it is ok to have your own hopes, dreams and aspirations even if everyone around you does not share them. And remember the German saying:

“Der Mann hat einen grossen Geist Und ist so klein von Taten” which means “The spirit of man is great / how puny are his deeds.”

We all possess many hopes and aspirations and even noble sentiments, but few of us ever live up to any of them.  That does not mean we stop trying, but not to despair when we are confronted with our weaknesses.

Freedom indeed comes with a price, but it is still better than living a life that is totally stilted by other people’s expectations.


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