‘Parents, give the children some rest’

Sometimes something lurks beneath the surface for years until suddenly – bam – it becomes visible. In recent weeks, one study after another has been published about the well-being of young people, and broadly they all show the same thing: A growing group of students and young adults are not doing well. They feel lonely, anxious and tense. Suffers from stress and performance pressure. One in six thinks about suicide.

Corona, virtually all of these studies say, is the catalyst that exacerbated and accelerated existing problems. Because young people could not go to school for months as a result of the pandemic, could not go out and had contact with peers only through the screen, they missed a crucial stage in their development.

You don’t just catch up, says Jolien Dopmeijer. “The last lockdown is almost a year behind us, but the pain is not over.” As project manager for students at the knowledge institute Trimbos, Dopmeijer has been researching student well-being for years. “The fact that everything is now possible and allowed again does not mean that it will work,” she says. Some young people have become so lonely and gloomy in corona times that they now find it difficult to make new friends, to mix in a group.

Worrying, says Dopmeijer. “Most mental health problems start before the age of 27. If you don’t intervene during that period, it can have lifelong consequences.”

“Corona has made visible what we have secretly seen happening in youth psychiatry for twenty years,” says Wouter Staal, professor of child and youth psychiatry at Radboud University and professor of autism at Leiden University. He treats children himself as a youth psychiatrist. “A growing stream of children and young people are going to psychiatry and youth care,” says Staal. “These are gradual processes that have accelerated enormously in the corona era. Anyone who was already on the edge took a huge hit and fell off. These young people have been hit very hard at a time in their lives when they have to practice socializing and find their place in their ‘peer group‘.”

Staal sees the consequences in his consultation room. Young adults with major depression. who harms himself. Youth with suicidal thoughts. And he sees a sharp increase in girls – and increasingly boys – with eating disorders so bad that they have to be force-fed. And the waiting lists for all help are long.

Until corona, one in twelve young people was mentally unhealthy, then it went up to one in five

Pressure and stress

“The image of our happy, happy childhood has taken a hit,” youth researcher Gonneke Stevens said recently in a statement NRC on the occasion of the four-year anniversary Health behavior in school-age children-research that measures young people’s well-being and health. The latest survey showed an unprecedented decline in the mental health of young girls in particular. Here too, corona is the most visible culprit, but another problem lurks in the background: Between 2001 and 2021, the proportion of young people who experience pressure and stress due to school has increased from 16 to 45 percent.

Since 2001, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) has also measured the mental health of young people. The scores show a fairly stable line until 2020, says chief sociologist Tanja Traag. “Until corona, one in twelve young people was mentally unhealthy, then it went up to one in five.”

People who are mentally unhealthy in the definition of Statistics Holland have indicated on a questionnaire that they often feel tense, nervous and depressed. Other CBS studies show that the risk of anxiety disorders and depression among young people has increased, even before corona.

“It may have to do with the increased pressure that young people experience,” says Traag. “We also know that parents are more likely to sound the alarm if they think something is wrong. Better and earlier diagnosed. The taboo about mental illness is gone.”

“If you ask young people what bothers them,” says Wouter Staal, “you often hear: we are always on. There is No way out.” Unlike the generation of their parents – today’s forties and fifties – young people are constantly monitored. Through each other, through their phones. And by their parents, who not only see the numbers via Magister, but also whether their child has did his homework, was truant or was late.

Parents are often very protective and set the bar high, says Staal. “It can lead to anxious and tense children. We live in a society that says anything is possible. You can achieve anything if you do your best. It puts a lot of pressure. Because if you don’t live up to expectations, if you don’t get into youth education or do a top study, then it’s up to you. Then you must be very drowsy.”

This ‘upward pressure’ is reflected in enrollments for further education: the number of students at universities has doubled over the past twenty years, while the proportion of students at MBO has fallen.

‘They have to do too much’

Staal regularly talks to parents who sound the alarm because their child is stressed or depressed. Then he asks: what will your daughter need in a week? “A whole list follows: judo, hockey, piano lessons, tutoring… Too much, I say. Give the child some rest. But, say the best-intentioned parents, she must go along with the rest.”

At the end of last year, CBS conducted its first research into performance pressure among young people. Something stood out in it, says Tanja Traag. The pressure the young people put on themselves turned out to be stronger than the pressure from outside – here too, the girls felt more pressure than the boys. Traag sees a possible explanation for this ‘internal’ pressure in the large role of social media. This can have a positive effect, as a cohesive factor in the young people’s social life. But also negative if young people are constantly measuring themselves via Instagram and Snapchat and want to present an ‘as cool as possible’ picture of themselves to compete with other people’s beautiful pictures.

The bomb

There is also something else: young people worry about their future. Major social and geopolitical problems hit hard. Student debt, housing shortages, the war in Ukraine and the climate crisis – anything less would make you overworked.

But wait a minute: the parents of these youngsters also grew up in a bleak world. Cold War, the bomb that could fall at any time, acid rain and high unemployment. Are they like that too?

Less, Wouter Staal believes, because society was structured differently. “Less individualistic and performance-oriented. If you didn’t find a job, it wasn’t your fault, it was the system’s fault.”

The key question: what can be done about it? Can you make the young people more robust or happy? Can you reverse strong social undercurrents, such as upward pressure and high expectations?

Yes, says Jolien Dopmeijer. “I see that this generation of young people is hard hit, but at the same time dare to speak out more and be vulnerable. Watch YouTube stars and influencers talk openly about their mental health issues. It helps.”

In her daughter’s class, she is in the sixth grade in elementary school, feelings are often discussed. That also helps, says Dopmeijer. “You can teach children at an early age that it is normal to feel bad from time to time. It is normal to ask for help. The earlier you start doing it, the better.”

At the same time, in many primary schools, the seeds for later performance pressure are sown. From group 1, children are tested and divided into suns, moons or rockets – depending on their reading or maths level. And some parents so anxiously ask why their child is not a sun. “It’s okay to look at children’s talents,” says Dopmeijer, “but try not to give them too much appreciation. The culture of excellence has gone too far and we need to break that spiral.”

There are two causes of mental illness: disposition and environment, says Wouter Staal. “You can’t change disposition, the environment can. There is profit to be made.” How? “By talking less about high and low, and looking more at what someone wants and can do. What is your role in society? What can you add? You are not less if you don’t obtaining a diploma at the highest level It is time to stop this literal madness rat race. We all have to act normal for a while.”

You can talk about suicide on the national helpline 113 Suicide prevention. Phone 0800-0113 or www.113.nl

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