Today is Youth Mental Health Day, and a quote that has always resonated with me is: “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Because not ‘seeing’ did affect my own mental health growing up.
Growing up in a country where there was no one openly queer, given the homophobic regime, felt quite lonely.
Not seeing any “role models” made me question my place in the world but I was fortunate enough not to have experienced homophobia myself; I would not have been remotely equipped to deal with the repercussions on my mental and physical health. This self-acceptance was mainly from seeing queer adults (largely on TV) and what I thought would have been out of reach – having accepting friends or even getting legally married – and hoping that one day it would be possible for me too.
However, I am personally aware of queer teenagers who have been cast out of their homes after coming out, have been forced into mental hospitals by their parents for treatment or have attempted suicide. The repercussions of a lack of acceptance often results in the tragic loss of lives. As a stark reminder of this, the Trevor Project estimates that at least 1 LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13–24 attempts suicide every 45 seconds in the U.S.
Accounting for diversity in all its facets – ethnicity, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, neurodivergence, disability – is fundamental for education systems to be inclusive and promote strong and cohesive communities.
Being considered as “other” in any shape or form is likely to be an isolating experience, especially at a young age.
It is only by recognising others’ perspectives and differences can we all be treated equally and fairly, which will have a beneficial ripple effect throughout society. Feeling represented and included is key for the next generation to feel psychologically safe. Being aware that differences are to be celebrated can only result in more positive mental health which in turn would allow our young people to realise their full potential, develop greater resilience and make meaningful contributions so they can “live their best lives”.
Often especially in ethnic minority groups, mental health is not talked about much. This is still deeply stigmatised, taboo or simply never talked about. I think that we, adults, have a duty of care to not repeat the sometimes destructive patterns that have been part of our legacy.
To be able to make a real impact, we need leaders across the spectrum of minority communities to make a conscious decision to speak up and to share their experiences with mental health.
Suffering from grief, depression, anxiety or any mental health issue is not the scourge of a specific group. And the concept of “saving face” i.e. “what would society say” or “you just need to be stronger” are themes which are quite recurrent in the Asian community, which I am part of, when talking about mental health. And to state the obvious, for young people with intersectional identities (who may already be victims of racism and discrimination), being victims of homophobia will only increase the chances of poorer mental health.
I would urge parents, educators and adults in general to find it within themselves to discuss what could be perceived as uncomfortable topics with young people or to proactively recommend them to professional support if required.
It's important to acknowledge how all types of diversity and differences impact a person's identity and their mental health. I would first recommend ensuring that our young people have opportunities to interact with an inclusive and diverse group of adults. This would enable them to hear from those who may have had similar lived experiences. Role models are incredibly important to the work we do at DRM, because we believe that ‘seeing’ people like ourselves can make a world of a difference to us ourselves feeling seen.
Practical ways that schools can support this in my opinion is to:
1. Communicate. It is the responsibility of adults to find ways to understand the views of young people, their challenges, the narratives that they might have erroneously created for themselves and how to address them. Let them know that you are happy to talk about how they’re feeling and why.
2. Educate. Educators should be alert to signs that young people might be suffering. Schools should understand the relevant safeguarding procedures and receive training to equip them to deal with specific concerns.
3. Signpost support. Schools should find out what practical help is available, where to get it and let young people and their parents know of options available to them, be it peer support, counselling or any form of school-based help.