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Don’t be afraid to feel: the importance of understanding our emotions

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

A wonderful young woman that I have been working with came to see me for a catch up recently, before she went interrailing for the summer. I asked her what had been better since we last met, and she told me that she now understood her feelings better. I asked her what difference that made to her, and she told me that she was no longer afraid of herself, and that she felt more confident in herself, in her decisions, and in her day-to-day life.

She gave me an example of what she was doing differently. She said that she had felt anxious the day before she had come to see me and tried something that had helped before - some stretching exercises. I asked her what difference this had made, and she told me that it helped her to calm down.

This was a huge change for her. This is something that she had hoped to do; to be able to talk to herself and calm herself down. By understanding herself better. She then went on to talk about the difference understanding her emotions and not being afraid of them had made to her life. She was now able to live more easily and she was less occupied with her problems. She was more focused on her well-being and hopeful for the future.

I see this situation quite often in my work as a solution focused practitioner, working with young people. Sometimes children, young people and their parents come to me feeling frightened, scared of themselves, and scared that they have a mental illness. They feel scared of what they are thinking and feeling.

I notice that young people are often afraid to observe what’s going well in their lives. They fail to notice their own strategies to manage things. They are afraid that they will not get the help they need if they highlight positive things. They feel they must define themselves by their issues.

The Dispatches programme on Channel 4 aired a programme recently exploring Britain’s ‘youth depression crisis’ and I felt somewhat relieved that they had made this important film.

Dispatches and its wonderful presenter, Sanah Ahsan, who has personal experience of depression and is a trainee psychologist, have actually started to question the systems that are in place to support our children and young people.

We should be asking: Are we dealing with depression in young people in the right way?

Dispatches spoke to experts who shared their concerns; “We’re promoting the idea that it’s ok to have a mental health problem – but it has made us afraid of our emotions”.

I have been really torn over how mental health issues are currently being portrayed. While it is vitally important to raise awareness of mental health, we need to do so in a way that supports young people, but not so that they define themselves by having a mental illness. I support the need to reduce the stigma of mental health but we also need to enable people to be open about how they feel.

I believe the current focus on mental illness and mental health is not allowing people to have conversations about their mental health in a positive or healthy way, because they are almost waiting for a diagnosis.

The fear that I see in young people is the fear that they are mentally ill and that they are defining themselves by it. They cannot see beyond it, and believe only someone else can help them to get better.

It’s time to stop medicalising our young people’s emotions and causing them to blame themselves for their issues. Let them feel their feelings and let them notice their strengths.

A narrative of self-blame, of failure, is being promoted.

Surely, we need to look at the education system, the healthcare system, our political system, to see that the problems lie here, and not with our children and young people?

If we did this, our children would be able to see how well they can cope and manage in difficult or complex times in their lives; how resilient they actually are, how they are heroes in their ability to manage day-to-day life at a time when we are putting so much on them to be perfect.

I commend the Dispatches team for looking at the root causes of depression and mental illness in our young people, and questioning the ways in which we are dealing with it.

Perhaps now, we can start to consider positive interventions, like the solution focused approach that works so well with children and young people. It allows them to notice their existing strengths, resilience and resources to achieve a preferred future.

This approach can start as early as antenatal classes; we can work with expectant parents to have a dialogue of possibility with their children. A solution focused approach, if promoted in nurseries, preschools and beyond, will enable us to loosen the constricting belt this problem- focused society puts around us. The solution focused approach allows children and young people to not live in fear of themselves, but instead see what they are able to cope with, day in day out.

It allows our young people to see themselves positively, as heroes with a future.

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