Youth Mental Health ‘Pandemic’ – underlying issues

The state of youth mental health has featured heavily in the news recently being describe by Sir Peter Gluckman as our next pandemic. As a mother of young adults and with a PhD in Psychology I am dismayed to hear the answers being proposed by prominent advocates and influencers in this field. The answers range from providing more placements in Early Childhood Education centres, teaching mindfulness in schools, teaching children about Mana/Respect. Is resilience teachable? Dr Gordon Neufeld believes early learning does not help socialise our tamariki or help them build resilience; here is a great article about that topic:

I believe that the most important answer to this multi-systemic issue will come from understanding the root cause: the need to strengthen attachments. In this very alarming world, with a global pandemic and economic recessions as well as wars and the climate crisis, is it any wonder our youth are overwhelmed?  Healthy attachment shields our children from the inside to whatever stressors they may be facing on the outside, leading to resilience.

This outer shield of resilience for our children may not be as readily available to them. A phenomenon Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate noted in their book, Hold on to your kid, is that our children have become more peer-attached than adult attached. Therefore, sending them off to institutions earlier in their lives is not the answer to strengthening attachments and resilience. The immature need to be cared for by the mature until they can ‘stand on their own two feet’, able to bounce back from overwhelming experiences with a strong Internal Working Model of comfort and emotional safety, which comes from secure attachments to caregivers. For a child to be insulated from bullying, they need to have a strong attachment to a wise caring adult whose love and belief in them is stronger than the power of the bullies words or actions. Cyber-bullying is an increasing phenomenon with no adults being able to mediate and moderate that space.

Taking as much stress off our parents shoulders as possible is critical so that they can be attuned to the emotional needs of their children. Relational poverty, or a lack of secure attachment to a benevolent, caring adult, is behind this current mental health crisis seen not just in rising suicide rates but recent ram raids, higher gang affiliation rates, increases in alcohol and drug consumption (more signs of peer attachment). Where are the caregivers of the rangitahi/youth who end up stealing cars to drive into a local dairy or shopping mall?

Four key factors have been found in the resilience research: being, belonging, believing and benevolence (S. Levine); these are things which cannot be taught but rather ‘caught’ from our attachment figures. They are all a function of secure attachment: values instilled at the inter-personal, intrapersonal and transcendent levels (attachment to God or the divine, the cosmos or Gaia/Spirit).

Teaching mindfulness is not really an answer to the rising youth mental health crisis.  Presuming they can self-regulate when they may not have been co-regulated by a calm, caring adult is flawed logic. An alarmed child cannot sit still and focus in their own body for very long to even do the deep breath that is required for a calmer mind to reflect on.  Emotional regulation comes from being co-regulated by a calm attuned care-giver until our children can self-regulate.

The emotional needs of our children and youth cannot be outsourced to schools as Sir Peter Gluckman and Sir John Kerwin propose, by either teaching it or providing more school counsellors; improving Early Childhood Education displaces parents as the primary attachments undermining their resilience. Using digital technology to deliver therapy is like parenting our children with robots. Parenting cannot be outsourced and there is no substitute for the role of an attuned caring, adult in the lives of our rangitahi/youth.

Resourcing and empowering our parents and the extended family/whanau, the hub of the villages of attachments around our tamariki,  will involve many government departments and multiple communicty agencies collaborating to reduce stressors on families, allowing parents to show up not just physically but emotionally to their children and youth.