Naomi Lerer
Naomi Lerer

To talk, or not to talk: that is the question

Mental health for young people during the pandemic  (Jewish News )
Mental health for young people during the pandemic (Jewish News )

If Covid was the health crisis that came out of nowhere, mental health is the pandemic that has been building for years. Over the last decade there has been a steady upward trend of mental health challenges amongst adolescent girls – and that was before we were blindsided by Covid-19. There are no shortage of headlines and public debate on the mental health crisis. The question is if all this discussion is helpful or, actually causing harm.

One real concern is that by discussing mental health, particularly with teens, it can entrench behaviours and actually trigger or deepen more harmful thought processes. It is well-known that those at risk of or suffering from eating disorders can use discussions on this to provide motivation and ideas on how to deepen dangerous eating patterns. Reports of suicide can increase others’ suicidal ideation. This is a widely held fear amongst educators and parents, but will very much depend on certain personalities and other environmental factors. However, the historic silence on mental health challenges and the sweeping under the carpet of those suffering from poor mental health is a stain on our collective conscience and easily recognisable as causing far more harm to those suffering with mental health and their families and close friends.

  • This weekend Noa is holding a matched-funding campaign. To donate to the campaign please visit www.charityextra.com/noa

When tackling this thorny topic, it is important to separate two issues. The first is talking about mental health on a national and communal level. In this regard, I believe there is absolutely no question that increased conversation serves to destigmatise and normalise mental health. People, particularly adolescent girls, can feel very isolated with their mental health challenges. As one girl I know says it, “the less we talk about mental health, the scarier it becomes”. It is crucial that we shine some light on the topic, demystifying it and rightly placing it as a health issue, much like any other. This will allow people to know they are not alone and enable them to access the support they need at the earliest possible stage.

The more nuanced question centres around increased conversation on an individual basis. Whilst continuous, unstructured discussions on certain issues can escalate conditions and cause feelings to take on a life of their own, through speaking about emotional distress with friends and family in a helpful way, girls leverage their social support to manage and contain their pain. Certainly, talking with a professional can be crucial for someone’s recovery and is, in some cases, life-saving. Such discussions can help prevent rumination, a repeating pattern of harmful thoughts that overtakes all consciousness, that is particularly prevalent in girls and women. When someone is willing and able to engage, a therapist can help release someone from a stuck thought pattern and help reorder and contain thoughts.

However, we need to realise that not everyone is ready for talking therapies. Adolescents, in particular, may not be ready to articulate or share their inner world in a clinical environment, despite parents and/or their schools believing this is the best thing for them. We need to take a more adolescent-centred approach and to work creatively to meet adolescents where they are at. This may mean using non-verbal or alternative therapies such as art, music or equine therapy. It may mean engaging them with activities such as personal training, therapeutic cooking or art projects or simply giving them a safe space to be themselves. We need to move at their pace.

  • This weekend Noa is holding a matched-funding campaign. To donate to the campaign please visit www.charityextra.com/noa

Statutory services, and we as service providers, are doing adolescents a great disservice if we try to impose a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health challenges. We need to be more creative, more flexible. We need to listen more to what teens want and need rather than rolling out one model and pathway to everyone.

In this way, by leading communal conversation about mental health, and at the same time, enabling and empowering adolescents to lead their own journey to recovery, we can create a way forward towards a more hopeful future for us all.

About the Author
Naomi Lerer is the CEO of Noa, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and Rebbetzin of Central Synagogue.
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