Teen Mental Health In Tricky Times

The last few years have been tough on us all, impacting everyone’s mental health. Teen mental health is no exception.

Young people have faced some challenges that adults haven’t. Exam uncertainty, grade mishaps, missing peers just at the time when peer relationships become all the more important and coping with remote/not remote/a bit remote schooling. Lots of us haven’t had a “normal” school year since 2018/19. It’s been tough.

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We wanted to offer some support – but all our blogs come from a place of lived experience, and though we were teenagers once, it was a different time and a different world when we were in school. Trying to write anything felt totally inauthentic, so we were delighted when Nix, a year 11 student, offered to help us.

Teen Mental Health in Tricky Times written over an image of 4 teens sat on a pebble beach looking at the sea.

Remote School

Most of us are back in classrooms now, but still face periods of isolation due to illness, disability, or chronic health conditions.

Remote school can be tricky. It’s tough not being able to see our friends face-to-face. Motivating ourselves to do schoolwork when we’re sitting at home is often difficult, and that’s if they send us any work at all. Making this even harder is the fact that we can’t plan – we don’t know whether we’ll be in school or at home; it can change from week to week.

Even though schools often try to support our mental health it’s still difficult. Sometimes schools ask us how they can support us – but we don’t always know. We might know that we’re struggling, but not know what we need, and that’s okay. When we feel able to, keeping an open dialogue with our school or college can help them to help us.

Anxiety and Learning

Most people have felt more anxious than normal over the last few years, and anxiety makes studying really hard.

Even a little bit of anxiety can affect our memory; we have to redo bits of learning that we’ve already tried to do once. Exams are more memory-based than they used to be. We don’t get given formula sheets and things like that, so when anxiety affects our memory, it can have a huge impact on our grades, and possibly our place in 6th form or university.

Sometimes we end up in an anxiety spiral. We’ve missed so much school over the past few years, that we often encounter things we’ve never seen before, which can make us really anxious. The more anxious we are, the more we struggle to study. The more we struggle to study, the more anxious we get.

When this happens, the best thing we can do is stop, breathe, and take a moment (yes, even in an exam!). If we are in an exam, it’s important to remember that we’ve done our best in the time we’ve had, and any questions we’ve already answered are done. Any time we have left is time to build on that, making our work even better.

Showing Feelings… Or Not

In primary school, it often feels like it’s okay to cry. But when we get to secondary school, it can cause problems if we show too much emotion. Many of us worry that if we cry or show “unacceptable” emotion, then we’ll be a target for bullies. To avoid that, we keep everything inside.

The problem is, that when we don’t let them out, our tricky emotions keep coming back. If we learn not to cry when we’re at school, then it can be hard to cry at home, too, making it really difficult to release that pent-up emotion healthily.

This can be worse for those presenting as male, and often gets worse the older we get. We hear messages like “you’re 15, you shouldn’t be crying, you’re not a kid anymore” (even though we’re not an adult, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with crying, and of course, there will be times when emotions run high – we’re teenagers).

It’s important to remember that, though we might not feel comfortable showing emotion at school, there’s nothing wrong with crying, nor with showing emotion.

Things That Help: Physical Health

Looking after our physical health can help our mental health.

Eating a balanced diet and drinking enough water can make a big difference to how we feel. It’s important to include the odd indulgence – eating nice things can lift our mood!

Being physically active can help us to sleep better, and when we’ve been studying all day, it helps us to feel like we’ve done something and had a change from sitting down. However, it isn’t always easy. Exercising with friends can be good fun – so much so that we forget that it’s good for us!! But we can’t do that if we’re self-isolating.

There are some exercises we can do at home. If we have equipment then we can do things like weights. If we don’t, then there are lots of different exercises we can do with no equipment at all. YouTube has some great workout videos we can follow, so does TikTok.

Sometimes, the hardest bit of being physically active is getting going. Things that can help include setting small, achievable goals, popping on a playlist that pumps us up, and following people on social media who prompt us to start moving. Making sure that our goals are small and achievable is important – any changes in fitness or appearance will take time (and that’s okay!).

Things That Help: Mental Health

Moments of calm reflection can help to settle our anxieties. If we have them (and we can do it safely), candles and incense can help to get us in the zone. Having time away from other people and the worries of our day-to-day routine can be important, especially if we’re all self-isolating together.

Sometimes people say gaming is a bad thing, but it can be a great way to switch off and escape from the real world for a while. So can reading books – fantasy books can take us to another world away from the stresses of this one.

Routine

People often say that routines are good for mental health, and they can be. However, sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves to stick to them, creating even more stress.

Routines are important – but so is balance. For example, we need to do basic self-care every day, but there’s nothing wrong with deciding to shift our evening shower to the next morning and grabbing an early night if we’re tired.

Social Media

Just like routine, social media can also be helpful or unhelpful depending on how we use it.

It’s can be a way to switch off and mindless scrolling can be relaxing. We can use it to talk to friends, especially those who live in different time zones. It can also be a bit of fun – there’s no shortage of funny videos.

Most apps and sites use algorithms to decide what appears on our feed. The more we look at a topic, the more often it appears on our feed. Sometimes this is great – who’s doesn’t love another video of a funny cat?!

Unfortunately, sometimes it isn’t very helpful, but luckily, there are things we can do about it. We can choose who we follow, and mute or block unhelpful accounts. On some sites, we can even block specific words. If we find that lots of posts are coming up on a topic that we don’t really want to see, then we can often click on the post and tell the site or app that we don’t want to see it. Over time, the algorithm will learn to stop showing things like that to us.

Sleep

There probably isn’t a teen out there who’s managed to avoid a discussion about how much they sleep. Many of us quite like staying up late and sleeping in. The problem is, we often have to get up early for school.

We might be someone who doesn’t need much sleep. But if, for example, we know that we feel rubbish on less than eight hours’ sleep, and we have to be up at 6:30am for school, then we need to try and aim for a 10:30pm bedtime.

If we’re someone who can lose hours to a good book, or mindlessly scrolling on our phone, then it can be helpful to tune into our body, recognise when we’re tired, and go to sleep.

When Mental Health Is Slipping

We all have early warning signs that tell us our mental health is going a little wonky. Learning them can take some trial, error, and self-reflection.

We all have signs that things are slipping. We could become routine-obsessed, or ditch routines altogether to the detriment of our health and self-care. Keeping up with good hygiene can be really difficult. We might skip food, or fall into patterns of emotional eating. Struggling to get up, struggling to go to sleep, frequent spikes of anxiety, and feeling irritable all the time are also signs that things aren’t okay. Sometimes we stop enjoying things that we used to like doing, too.

When Mental Health Slips: Things that help

Spotting our early warning signs can help us to do something about them.

If we have someone we trust, either a friend or an adult, then we could talk to them about how we feel. Sometimes, we just need to let it out. At other times, we need a bit more support or find it helpful to problem-solve together.

Time to relax is vital. This can be hard when we have lots of schoolwork or are juggling school with a job. But time off from both school and work can make a big difference to our mood.

Having a notebook of “little wins” helps to remind us that we’re doing a lot better than we think. The keyword here is “little”. These don’t have to be ground-breaking discoveries or world-record-breaking achievements. It can include things like “I had a shower” or “I got out of bed”. Our little wins might be different from other peoples’ because we all find different things hard – and that’s okay.

Remember – different things work for different people, and that’s okay. When we feel rubbish, we need to prioritise ourselves and do what’s right for us – not what’s right for our best friend.

When Mental Health Slips: Helping A Friend

If a friend is struggling, then we might be able to help them with some bits of self-care, like encouraging them to eat or drink enough. We could take them out for their favourite food, or bring their favourite snack in for lunch if we’re at school.

Reminding them that they’re loved and appreciated can mean more than we know. Reminding them of inside jokes or memories that we share with them can help to lift their mood and remind them how loved they are and how much we care about them. For example, if we’ve got a spiderman-related in-joke, we could go on a spiderman-themed day out.

When It’s Hard To Ask For Help

Sometimes, asking for help is really hard because we might worry about what people will think. People are more aware of mental health since lockdown, but it can still be tricky. In reality, we all have mental health and, just like physical health, we sometimes need help with it.

We might not think that we deserve help or support, or that the way we feel is our fault. This can create a negative spiral making us feel worse and worse. But we do deserve help and support, and it isn’t our fault.

A Thought To End With

We like this quote because it shows that our characteristics don’t define our future, and our mental health status doesn’t define who we can be:

“Sometimes good people make bad choices, it doesn’t mean they’re bad people, it means they’re human”. – Sui Ishida.

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