By Madonna King
Ask 1000 girls – all aged 16, 17 or 18 – what they see as their biggest challenge and the answer is loud: their mental health.
Indeed, latest research for my book L Platers found seven in 10 girls believe they are struggling because of a mental health issue.
Repeatedly, they told they felt worse than they did two years ago. Crippling anxiety, depression, panic attacks, eating disorder, school refusal, suicide ideation and self-harm topped the list of challenges they are facing as they struggle through Years 11, 12 and that first year as an adult.
The causes are numerous, and it’s easy to target their social media obsession. It certainly has created a world of comparison where our daughters will always find it impossible to match that perfect (and fake) image they see on their smartphone.
Rating formal dates, medical surgery based around Snapchat filters and pornography are just three of the subjects that popped up too often.
But social media is only one factor creating a mental health epidemic. The legacy left by COVID-19 for this cohort should not be underestimated as another factor.
School principals and teen psychologists say it was the uncertainty around the pandemic, as much as the lockdowns in Victoria, that challenged this group.
Social demographer Mark McCrindle told me he thinks they were the most affected.
While the elderly were more vulnerable from a health perspective, socially and economically this group lost most.
Stymied social lives. Isolation. A sense of belonging and purpose faded. Connection disappeared along with part-time jobs and school formals, 18th birthday parties, and in-person university classes.
That meant less opportunity to make judgements and take calculated adventures – a path to adulthood their big sisters might have enjoyed.
And that’s now being seen – according to those working with first year university students – in 18-year-olds not knowing what they don’t know and being unprepared for that first year post-school.
This hasn’t made the headlines but is impacting this generation in a way we need to confront.
I wish my mum and dad would understand that I’m not coping. I’m not.
One quote, from one Year 12 girl, but it sums up the views of hundreds. But here’s a silver lining: this is an age where often they again seek us out – particularly Mum – after a few years of discarding quickly any advice we might have offered. They want our guidance.
And that brings me to another of those causes of the epidemic in mental health we are seeing: that final year of school.
Doing well is important. Trying hard is crucial. And some lucky students sail through. But this year-long research left me heart-broken at the number of those seeing year 12s as a mountain they constantly felt falling off.
Vomiting before class. Spending four – even more – hours each night studying.
Painting an ATAR on the roof of their bedroom as a reminder that they could be nearing success – or a failure that in their minds will cruel their future.
And even more telling, few are enjoying a load that isn’t allowing time for curiosity and wonder and academic treks down unexpected paths.
As parents, we can influence that. What type of young adult do we hope graduates and takes off with confidence and independence at 18?
Yes, they need to know how to learn and stay curious. But they also need a toolbox of other skills that will determine whether they lead, into the future.
Kindness. Understanding the value of a team and the importance of inclusivity. Being articulate and able to communicate their ideas with influence and clarity.
A really good listener, too.
That means we need to look at their education in a more ‘whole’ way than they are seeing it now. We need to help them find white space. Balance. Time to sit on a trampoline and ruminate.
The amalgam of challenges – from a new brand of academic pressure to COVID-19 to social media and the host of problems it creates – means this generation of teens faces adulthood with a handicap we didn’t have.
And we have to help them find the glitter. They told me that begins with us listening to them.
Madonna King is the Chair of Catholic School Parents Australia. Madonna’s new book can be purchased at https://www.booktopia.com.au/l-platers-madonna-king/book/9780733648687.html Madonna is also doing parent presentations at many of our schools. For more detail, please ask your school to contact Emily Lighezzolo on email@example.com