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Social-media ‘perfection’ harming students

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Promoting awareness: Shanay Scott, chairwoman of the Mental Health Awareness Committee, left, Anne Coakley, head of secondary at Warwick Academy, David Horan, principal at Warwick Academy, McKenzie-Kohl Tuckett, health minister Kim Wilson, Glenn Caisey, clinical director of Mental Health Services at the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute (Photograph by Anna Nowak)

A 15-year-old schoolgirl warned about the perils of modern-day school life as she kicked off Mental Health Awareness Week yesterday.

McKenzie-Kohl Tuckett from Warwick Academy said children faced pressure from teachers and parents to perform well in exams, bullying from school friends and unrealistic expectations of “perfection” promoted on social media.

She highlighted research by the American Psychological Association, which showed nearly half of all teenagers admitted they suffered stress from pressures at school.

McKenzie-Kohl said: “The pressure to perform well academically was the most significant, followed by the desire to please teachers.

“In addition, the combination of schoolwork, extracurricular activities and studying for exams leads to crammed schedules.

“Teenagers should be encouraged to reach out to their school counsellors if they feel as if they can’t cope.”

She was speaking at Warwick Academy, the venue for the launch of the awareness campaign, which this year is focused on the mental health of young people in a fast-changing world.

McKenzie-Kohl said parents could set unrealistic expectations for their children, which could lead to burnout, anxiety and low self-esteem.

She said: “How does one fix this? By lowering unrealistic expectations, allowing teenagers to accept themselves as they are, assisting them with identifying their unique strengths and encouraging them as they build on those strengths.

“The unconditional love and unwavering support of family is invaluable.”

She said that young people wanted to fit in with their classmates, which meant they tried to live up to an “unrealistic level of perfection” on social media.

McKenzie-Kohl added: “This can lead to strong feelings of inadequacy. Text messages and photos are so easily shared via social media and, depending on their nature, sometimes lead to public humiliation.

“Unfortunately, there are times when nothing spreads faster than bad news. Young people are focused on the likes gained on social media, which can lead to bad choices.

“Teenagers are able to connect with just about anyone, and a friend is only a friend request away. Having too many fake friends exposes adolescents and gives them a distorted sense of self-worth.

“In addition, there is no privacy on social media and many are constantly trying to maintain a make-believe image of themselves.”

McKenzie-Kohl added that youngsters bullied at school faced greater dangers to their mental health.

She explained: “Those who are bullied are at an increased risk for mental health problems such as depression. Not to mention the possible long-term damage to one’s self-esteem as a result of bullying.”

Dave Horan, the principal at Warwick Academy, said: “I was incredibly proud of what she had to say. I was incredibly proud of the way she said it.”

Mr Horan felt McKenzie-Kohl had captured the sentiments of “a large number of students”.

He said: “I think there’s a growing number of young adults her age who are very aware that they need to be equipped to deal with pressures that are very different to what we had to deal with as youngsters.”

Mr Horan said the school had a responsibility to help pupils stay safe on social media.

He added: “We’ve been spending a lot of time on that over the last few years — to try and help students navigate and also equip parents with the skills they need to have the right conversations as home.”

Health minister Kim Wilson, who launched the awareness week, said: “Young people today have exposure to bullying online, and a constant stream of news through our TVs, phones and computers.

“But if we are proactive in education and we empower our children at an early age to be good digital citizens and make informed and responsible choices when they use online media, we can save lives and, certainly, much emotional distress.”

Glenn Caisey, director of Mental Health Services at the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute, added: “The mental health of our young people is precious.

“Identifying and responding to mental disorders in this age group is critical to give them the best chance at a fulfilling life.”

To view the speeches of health minister Kim Wilson and Warwick Academy student McKenzie-Kohl Tuckett, and to access the Mental Health Awareness Week activities schedule, click on the PDFs under “Related Media”.

Health minister Kim Wilson with Warwick Academy pupil McKenzie-Kohl Tuckett (Photograph by Anna Nowak)
<p>Global facts</p>

• At least half of all mental health disorders appear by the age 14 and about 75 per cent by the age 24.

• Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 29.

• Schizophrenia usually starts between the ages of 16 and 30 although children are affected in rare cases.

• The age for onset for anxiety disorder in young people is 8.

• Early interventions in treating mental illness result in higher recovery rates and improved social functioning for people with psychosis.

• One in five girls and one in ten boys are cyberbullied.

• US research indicates more than 20 per cent of students aged 12 to 18 experience bullying.

• About 13 to 45 per cent of adolescents, and 14 to 25 per cent of college students, have a recent history of self harm.

• Self harm is strongly associated with subsequent suicide.