Reading about the high statistics of mental illness, anxiety and depression that we seem to be experiencing in the UK, I am wondering how these conditions are measured today. I am also wondering, in particular, how well young people are being introduced to the fact that emotions are signals, not something to be afraid of necessarily.
We were with a friend last night who was talking about how she has learnt that when she goes down into a dark mood it is actually signalling a transformation that is often creative. I can relate to this personally as I have spent much of my life trying to avoid feeling glum and doing all I can to stay ‘up’. But as I have become older and – who knows! – perhaps a little wiser, I am far less afraid of those down feelings and have come to recognise them as helpful messages, possibly to go more gently, to take more time out, not to push against life and be willing to accept some disappointments. Sometimes the words of a poem will arise from these low moments.
I guess in an era of celebrity lifestyles, Facebook and Instagram, young people get the impression that life should always be perfect. Rejection, disappointment, failures, mistakes can all take on a stronger impact than they would if one was living in different times when one wasn’t surrounded by images of perfect models and smiley happy people. But disturbing emotions and experiences are part of human life and we can’t and should not try to protect ourselves from the reality that any human life includes suffering, often as much as it includes joy.
So I was horrified to read that students will be allowed to skip exam topics that they find ‘upsetting’. Apparently staff at leading universities have been told not to include disturbing subjects in the compulsory part of academic assessments. The list of sensitive topics in the Sheffield University guidelines includes faith, religion, sexuality, rape, abortion, torture, death and bereavement, as well as LGBTQ topics.
What are we doing in trying to shelter students from these areas of life that are a fundamental part of our human history? Death and bereavement are as much a part of life as birth: how does it help young people to try to paint them out in case they get upset by the idea? It seems those who claim to be upset can then resit the exam later… which, I am sorry, call me a cynic, seems like a great excuse for a bit more revision time!
Yes, much of human life, history and behaviour is profoundly upsetting but it is part of the whole picture. We just reinforce the concept of ‘everything must be easy and perfect’ if we don’t explain the darker side of things. And how can the next generations work towards improving human behaviour if they don’t understand that throughout history there has been murder, violence, robbery, torture and death? How can they know the horror of the two world wars if we do not continue to remind them that their grandfathers lost their lives in the mud and therefore wars should be avoided whenever possible?
Expectations, sometimes unconscious, shape our emotions and behaviours. If we have the expectation that ‘life should be easy’ we shall be disappointed when it isn’t. If we have the expectation that ‘I must be successful’ we will feel like a failure when we don’t get the degree, job or promotion we were hoping for. If we have the expectation that “I ought to be happy all the time” we are going to feel thoroughly fed up on those inevitable days when our mood is far from happy.
So expectations need to be rational. There is no perfect world, no perfect human being. We all make mistakes, get down, anxious or angry and occasionally are rejected by someone or a group of people. This is life and we have to build the inner resilience to manage it as best we can by reminding ourselves that this is normal, it’s ok, and we can work through it. And if we can’t, we can ask for help.
So I hope that instead of blocking out difficult topics, schools and colleges will enable young people to tune into their emotions, recognise that each emotion is providing information and that it helps to make friends with feelings rather than push them away or be fearful of them. It’s about beginning to notice the situations and people that help them feel happy, then noticing that they might feel anxious when they haven’t made a good plan for the future or are imagining a catastrophe that hasn’t even happened yet. And, indeed, may never happen. They might feel angry when they feel threatened and need to step back, take a slow breath, reflect and question how real the threat is and what they might do about it.
Emotions act like a silent and wise navigation process. Emotional messages remind us of our values and personal truths. We need to listen to the cues and act before the emotion becomes overwhelming. We can also learn to detect which emotions are helpful and which are not – for example feeling grief and sadness after a bereavement is natural but if these feelings incapacitate us for years they become unhelpful. Feeling pain and anger when a partner rejects us is natural for a period of time but if we’re still feeling angry after many years then we may be stuck in that anger and it won’t be helping us to get on with life, or to experience more joyful emotions.
We can’t and shouldn’t shelter our young from the fact that life can be hard and difficult. But we should remind them frequently that they have the resources to deal with the downs as well as the ups and give them the tools to listen, accept and work with their emotions to experience the full range of being human. Many creative acts have been inspired by a low mood followed by a burst of inspiration. Let’s try to remove the fear of the black dog. Let’s try to help young people have more realistic expectations of life so that they aren’t stymied when something goes wrong but just recognise it as a life event they can work through. It must be worth a try …
Watch useful video in from World Health Organisation:
Emotional Healing for Dummies by Helen Whitten and David Beales, Wiley 2010https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Emotional+Healing+For+Dummies-p-9780470747643
Future Directions: Practical ways to develop emotional intelligence and confidence in young people by Helen Whitten and Diane Carrington, Network Continuum, 2006https://www.amazon.co.uk/Future-Directions-intelligence-confidence-Intelligence/dp/1855391988/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1543491183&sr=8-1&keywords=future+directions+helen+whitten