An investigation into the rise in teenage suicide and depression in UK’s leading educational institutions, and how two actresses are trying to help child mental health through issue based forum drama.
Approximately one out of 10 children aged five-16 suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder. This equates to three children in every class. Statistics revealed by the World Health organisation show a fifth of 15 year olds in England say they have self-harmed over the past year. This is a threefold increase in just over a decade. While we may be more knowledgeable and open to discussion around issues related to mental health, it still remains something of a taboo.
This taboo extends to our educational system where children and young adults are particularly vulnerable to institutional and peer pressure. A safe environment of transparency and free disclosure is a fine thought. Not, however, apparent in many of Britain’s finest schools.
Ann Atkins and Rosie Ward have noticed this considerable gap in our healthcare market. The now part-time but once aspiring fame hungry actresses have woefully admitted defeat from the impenetrable Hollywood, and have instead utilised their thespian training into a series of dramatic workshops for the younger generation.
“Since I was a child, when I needed to process something I write poetry,” Ann Atkins, 31, tells me.
“I was writing poetry because it was approaching Christmas and I had a sibling who was very unwell. He had severe mental health problems. Christmas became a traumatic time. It was approaching Christmas and I was on a bus writing a poem.”
This poem developed into Ann’s Normal? Education workshop.
Normal? Education is an interactive and creative workshop targeted at children in schools. During the one-hour inclusive program, Ann acts out the role of a depressed teenager and invites her audience to interject with personal anecdotes. The response has been overwhelming, she says.
Teenagers now have a safe platform where they can say, ‘this is what I am going through, and I have a cousin or mum, or whatever’.
Socially, there is a safe space for discussion around suicide, self-harm and depression. People are now talking about it openly on TV, there are storylines on soaps (Hollyoakes to name a few), and celebrities are coming forward with intimate testimonies. Mental health is now, more than ever, within the public eye. Despite this, there is still an epidemic of self-harming and suicide amongst the younger generation.
Statistics from the ONS reveal a rise in suicide for people aged 15 years and over. In 2014 figures were published suggesting a 70% increase in 10-14 year olds attending A&E for self-harm. These figures proceed the past two years. As an alumnus of the pubescent and spotty teenager club I recall remaining relatively untouched from the self-harm epidemic that now plagues Britain’s schools. So too does Roise, 28.
Founder of Upfront Theatre, Rosie offers bespoke mental health workshops for high school students.
“In the last three years there is far more demand for mental health workshops. I think people have always been aware of suicide and self-harm. People self harmed when I was at school, but it wasn’t tackled the same way,” she recalls.
The high self-harm statistics is attributed to our lack of transparency and openness in dealing with youths. Hence, the need for niche bespoke workshops that utilise dramatic conventions to ‘speak’ directly to teenagers about their mental health.
Rosie starts her workshops with a list of myths and facts, followed by a film featuring two teenagers discussing mental health. Rosie freezes the action, replays the scenes and opens it up to the forum.
“99% of the time the kids are really well informed, they know the statistics,” she says.
“There are so many campaigns; the kids know all of it. However, sometimes there is some confusion over what is included in a mental health condition.”
Similarly to Ann, Rosie’s passion for issue-based drama stemmed from her own personal experiences.
“I was a really crap friend to a someone who was self harming. I wasn’t mean to her but I just didn’t understand. It is human instinct to want to solve problems and just help. I just kept telling her ‘you should do this and you should do that’, which is obviously what you are not supposed to do,” she says.
Society is somewhat at a loss in how to treat teenage depression, suicide and self-harm. Dr. Kingsley of the NHS suggests ‘talking to them’. If the issue persists, further treatments such as ‘cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressant medication’ are viable options, he says.
Dr. Kingsley also suggests children should abstain from excessive social media presence as this can ‘contribute’ to feelings of depression and anxiety. Additionally, a study published in the Cyber Psychology, Behaviour and Social Networking reveals teenagers who use social media for more than two hours per day are more susceptible to feelings of depression. The study shows how ‘blind bullying’ contributes to the alarmingly high statistics of children suffering from a mental health illness.
“Puberty is shit: it is such a difficult time, and social media really doesn’t help,” Rosie tells me. There is a serious issue with self-harm in the high achieving all girls’ schools in North London. Similarly, in all-boys schools where they are expected to go to Oxbridge and get A’s, there are also large numbers of students self harming.”
Ann and Rosie are inundated with requests from top tier educational institutions. Forum theatre provides an opportunity for a transparent discussion on the issues of mental health. The British hierarchy and ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality has never been the ideal platform for transparency of emotion. ‘Don’t hang your dirty washing out in public’ is an aged and archaic ingrained philosophy, and is somewhat answerable to the high rates of teenage suicide and self-harm apparent in this country.
“The suicide statistic packs a huge punch,” Rosie says. “But when you put a human story to it, this is when people start engaging.” Performance art is a powerful and creative medium, and is a more influential method of teaching children about mental health. Simply, consider a song about heartache.
“In dealing with this fairly common and indiscriminately emotion, which is the better cure? Listen to a love song or read an essay on heartache,” Ann asks me.
“I don’t think we give enough credit to how powerful the creative arts is in addressing so many issues. The theatre is a safe and fun environment and it is less threatening to be entertained. I think that is why it is being used more,” Rosie adds.
The positive response Ann and Rosie receive from their workshops is ‘astounding’. In their accounts they disclose a real appreciation from kids that they can finally share their stories.
A counterargument has gained momentum- by talking about mental health so much has the taboo become a craze?
In a series of articles for the Huffington Post titled ‘Why are we talking about this?’ comedian and writer Mark Watson reflects how ‘forests of statistics have sprung up about suicide rates; there are anti-depression initiatives in previously neglected areas like sport, and social media haves with reminders to pay attention to the subject’. Similarly, controversial writer Katie Hopkins suggests that all depression sufferers need are a ‘pair of shoes and fresh air’.
Crucially, the demand for anti depressants has reached an all time high. The World Health Organisation reveals that Britain now has the seventh highest prescribing rate for antidepressants in the western world. There are twice as many people now taking drugs than they were ten years ago.
Clare* is 16 and attends a prestigious all-girls school in North London. She is stressed and anxious about her final exams, and has fits of crying before bedtime. A history of depression is not evident within Clare’s family. She is not self-harming, but did disclose to the doctor that she is having ‘bad thoughts’. The doctor in question immediately prescribed her anti depressants.
“They are told to watch out for depression and self harm, or crying all the time, but these are very normal emotions during puberty. This is not necessarily depression or a mental health issue,” Rosie says.
Clare was one of the students in attendance at Rosie’s Upfront Theatre workshop.
“It was such a powerful hour,” she tells me. “I had the opportunity to talk about how I was feeling. To be able to share my story really, really helped.”
Clare later reveals she isn’t attending counseling sessions. “But I do take my ‘anti depressants regularly,” she adds quickly.
Teenage self-harming is a trendy mainstream topic and the subsequent effects have bolstered the demand for Rosie and Ann’s enterprising creative workshops. They are not trained psychiatrists, but both agree that the demand for Normal? Education and Upfront Theatre is because ‘depression for teenagers is rather in vogue.’
“It is a way of differentiating from the masses,” Ann tells me. “Doctors should recognise this trend and address teenage depression and anxiety with open discussion and forums, not handing out drugs like they are sugar lollies.”
In the case of a child self-harming the former actresses encourage ‘talking it through’ via counselling or drama.
“Self harming is scary. If a kid goes to the doctor the first time with cuts, the doctor shouldn’t just shove them on meds, they need to prescribe counselling, talk to them and discover why they are doing this,” says Ann.
“There is a slight trend, it is fashionable now, but the old school belief that we shouldn’t talk about it otherwise kids will do it is bullshit,” adds Rosie.
Ann is adamant that we need ‘more creative mental health education’ for kids in schools. While she is ‘grateful’ for the ‘way things are now’ in comparison to how it was when her family needed support, she maintains that ‘more needs to be done’.
“When my family and I needed support it was hellish. No one spoke about depression and no one understood it. It didn’t matter if you were going to a service or authorities or whatever, it was just a black hole. There was no way of getting the support you needed,” she tells me.
Rosie and Ann remain steadfast in their quest to educate children through issue-based drama. They both aim at being the leading mental health workshop in the UK.
“We need to get our head around the fact that kids are going to do what they want,” says Rosie. “These kids are going to try drugs, self harm and get pregnant. There is no way of stopping them outright, but it is about educating these kids so if they get into these situations they know how to get out of it”.